The Lasting Legacy of Roger Bickham


Yesterday was Memorial Day, a day where many of us were given time off of work to remember the passing of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in service of our country.  As I sat doing P&L sheets I received a phone call, that will stick in my mind for the rest of my life.  It was from Jordan, my landlord, Roger Bickham’s granddaughter.  I knew that they were out of town for the weekend, so I answered expecting to be asked to maybe go and check on something at the house or some other menial helpful task.  But when I heard her voice, I knew something was wrong, she told me that her Pepaw had passed away in his sleep.

In the following moments of our conversation, I sat on my couch in a state of shock, unsure of what to say or what even could be said.  I said a couple of cliche comments of, I am sorry for your loss, but nothing that could come close to being helpful.  After we got off the phone I continued sitting on the couch, not able to fully believe that this had happened.  Mr. Bickham was 83, so at that age we know there is more time behind us than ahead of us.  However, I had just seen him on Friday as they were preparing to leave for Florida and discussed the new wood chipper he had just gotten.

Everything seemed fine, no illness, no reason to expect that I would not see him again on Tuesday.  I was going to write a post, but quite honestly, that doesn’t come close to telling the story behind our meeting Mr. Bickham, so I decided to write this blog so that I can tell the story about how this man, who my family and I have only known for the last five or so years, has had such a profound impact on my life and on my business.  If you are a fan of our products and enjoy the variety of flavors that we produce, I can tell you with no uncertainty that if not for Mr. Bickham, I would not be in business today and there would not be a Grumpy Man.

In 2013 we were making salsa out of my parents kitchen under the Cottage Food Law, we knew that without a commercial kitchen we would not be able to sell wholesale and were even operating in a grey area; where an over ambitious health inspector could possibly shut us down.  We began looking for a place to rent.  As fortune would have it my mom was doing a farmers market in Purvis and Mr. Bickham came by and tried our salsa.  Also fortunately, he liked it and after a brief conversation left some information saying that he had a small commercial kitchen available for rent if we wanted to look at it.  At the time I spent a lot of time in Downtown Hattiesburg, and I had found a cool building with a loft for me to live in while building my business.  So we set up a day with a health inspector, Aaron Walters (I may have to write a piece about Aaron one day, he was also very helpful to us and gone far too soon), to look at the Downtown Hattiesburg location and the location at Mr. Bickham’s in Purvis.

After inspecting both locations the Downtown Hattiesburg one was deemed the cooler of the two, however better minds in the form of my dad’s and the recommendation of Aaron, due to the cost to renovate the Downtown location, we began renting from Mr. Bickham.  He gave us almost complete freedom to do with the kitchen as we needed, we took out existing stoves and put in a new one, we then managed to cram a 40 gallon steam kettle into our 400 sq ft kitchen.  Where during the summer when we were cooking and the A/C was going would still make the room temperature over 100 degrees.

As we grew, slowly but surely we filled his little kitchen with shelves and product until we were bursting at the seams.  Then in 2017 I approached him about renting another building on his property, a large room inside of a warehouse.  This room had not been used in any of the previous years leading up to this point, except for storage.  He agreed and once again gave me an unbelievable deal.  It wasn’t until the summer of 2018 that I even had the money to begin renovations.  We put a lot of sweat equity into the remodeling and getting the building up to code.  When he finally came to see it he told me, “I have to admit, you had a vision for this place that I didn’t have.”

Mr. Bickham had been around enough businesses, start ups, etc to know that for the most part they fail and there were many times that I told him about a new job or opportunity that had come up and how if it came to fruition that I might take it.  During all those years, he never once told me whether I should or shouldn’t.  His advice was consistently, “You should do what is right for you.”  So I cleaned pools, worked in warehouses, and loaded trucks, all while making salsa.

Last year, after we had finished working on the new kitchen he told me, “When you first started renting from me, I didn’t think you would be here a year later, much less five.”  

I responded, “If I was smarter and not so stubborn I probably wouldn’t have.”

I learned a lot from Mr. Bickham through the years, from when I started out young and hungry, always wanting more and never being content, I saw how he lived and not that he was destitute, but he wasn’t chasing things.  He never raised my rent and when I offered to pay 5% extra every year, he told me that if I got to the point where I could, then do it, but he didn’t need it.  He also told me that he was probably a terrible business man for doing things that way.

He helped me to find ingredients and would let me know if there was a good deal, make the purchase for me, and sell it to me at cost.  So he very well might have been a terrible business man, but he was one of the best people I know.  

I don’t know about his charitable giving, or if he gave to charity, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.  If you worked at his restaurant and you worked hard, he would help you however he could.  He personified helping those who help themselves.  I don’t believe that he believed in handouts, but he certainly believed and lived helping people, sometimes at his own expense.

He tried for the first year or so to get me to call him Roger, but I always had too much respect for him to call him anything other than Mr. Bickham.  But to many of his employees that is who he was, an old hippie, who had lived an extraordinary life, but never thought too much of himself. 

Over the years we had a lot of conversations sitting in his living room or even putting together a puzzle at his kitchen table.  They weren’t always deep and he told a lot of the same stories, but there was always a certain amount of calming comfort in those times that I spent with him.  That is one of the things that I am going to miss the most.  

I don’t believe that it is possible for me to express in words just how much of an impact that Mr. Bickham had on me.  For the past five years he has become a part of my life and whether or not he was terrible at business as he sometimes supposed, he made a huge impact on mine.  While all along showing me through his life, that business and money are only fleeting and that it is your family and enjoying what you have now that truly matters.  I believe that is the legacy that Mr. Bickham leaves behind, and it is one that will be remembered for at least as long as I live.

 


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