The Legacy of Judge Verbon Fulenwider
Judge’s Riverside is Morganton’s icon for good southern barbecue. It began as an idea which grew from a passionate dream born nearly 30 years ago and thrives today to honor the spirit of a loved one.In 1981 Walter Bell, an insurance agent and a good Fulenwider family friend, wanted a barbeque restaurant in Morganton and thought it would be an excellent project for local restaurateur Judge Verbon Fulenwider (affectionately referred to by friends and family as “J.V.”). J.V. however, was not convinced.
July, 1982, the idea of a barbeque restaurant was again discussed at a cook-out at the Fulenwider’s home. A smoker was borrowed from an establishment in Hickory and used to prepare the meal. Upon hearing the compliments and much positive feedback, J.V. became enthused about bringing the famed barbeque to Morganton.
Since Morganton didn’t have a barbeque restaurant, J.V., Walter, and J.V.’s two sons, Russ and Mike went to Savannah, Georgia in August to visit Johnny Harris’s BBQ to get a feel for the business. After a tour of their restaurant and BBQ sauce factory, and after speaking with the owner of the company, J.V. was on fire. He adopted this project with great passion and looked to the future to bring this dream into reality.
Sadly, on September 28, 1982, J.V. Fulenwider, legend, loved one, and motivated entrepreneur, passed silently in his sleep. Family and friends mourned the loss and his dream of the restaurant drifted quietly away with him.
Walter, Mike, and Russ slowly began to look back at J.V.’s last project and were determined to see it rise to success, to become his legacy. The three men saw an opportunity to honor a great man, a man who loved life, a dear husband, father and friend. Therefore, to attribute the foundations on which this task was upheld, the men decided to name the future establishment Judge’s BBQ, Inc.
Mike began scouting for a location and Russ bought a smoker and, assisted by Walter, worked to establish a name for Judge’s BBQ. They contacted John Green in Boone, requesting permission to be a vendor at the High County Mountain Festival in Boone. Green happily invited them but informed them that they were not allowed to prepare or sell barbeque because another vendor had already been approved for these sales. Walter and Russ then transported their smoker to Boone and received very few customers with their smoked chicken and ribs, while the barbeque vendor was never without business. In desperation, the men pulled their meat from the bone, bought buns and created Judge’s JUDGE’S RIVERSIDE The Legacy of Judge Verbon Fulenwider famous smoked chicken and rib sandwiches. Their business greatly increased and began to drown out the barbeque vendor. The vendor actually left before the festival was over due to the losses in revenue created by Judge’s first successful service.
Mike was contacted about Morganton’s old Riverside Fish Camp. J. H. McCombs offered to rent out the building and surrounding land to the Fulenwiders. Mike was quite familiar with the Fish Camp. J.V. was very fond of the restaurant and often took him and Russ out to the restaurant to eat. The men agreed it was the perfect location for Judge’s restaurant. While the facility was under construction, Russ was selling BBQ from his smoker on the street corners of Morganton. Judge’s BBQ quickly became well-known for its quality.
The Fish Camp, however, underwent heavy construction to create Judge’s BBQ. It became a one story structure with a front and back dining room, an open service station, and an enclosed kitchen with Russ’s smoker.
On February 7, 1986, Judge’s BBQ opened for business and got plenty of it. In 1990, the upper dining room, bar and deck were constructed to assist their many customers. Mid-2003, the additional outside shed was built for outside entertainment, caterings, fund raisers, and weddings. The future was bright, the business was thriving, and J.V.’s dream of a successful barbeque restaurant was finally an appreciated reality.
Unfortunately the flood of September 7, 2004 ruined the restaurant, Rusty’s old smoker and possibly the dream. However, the establishment did not become a lost cause. Many hours of hard work built Judge’s up again and on February 14, 2006, Judge’s BBQ reopened.
Fulenwider Enterprises continued Judge’s legacy by expanding his restaurant into a chain on February 9, 2009. Judge’s BBQ Express and Catering Restaurants in Valdese and in Hickory focuses on quality food, customer service, and excellence in catering.
However, some of the history still exists at Morganton’s location. The Riverside Fish Camp sign still hangs above the hostess stand, the floods high water mark of 2004 was made into a border that runs throughout the building, and a charcoal drawing of Judge Verbon Fulenwider hangs on the wall in the front foyer. The future for Judge’s BBQ continues to look bright and J.V. Fulenwider’s dream continues to be a valued reality to his family and our community.