Sweet tea flows into tall glasses with smooth jazz playing in the background. Staff carrying sizzling platters of blackened chicken and grits are weaving in between tables to arrive at eager patrons’ tables. This an average day at Mr. Friendly’s Southern Café in Columbia, South Carolina.
The award-winning restaurant that continues to surpass expectations is now in its 23rd year of operation. This success, rare to come by in such a competitive field, is no doubt attributed to the passionate co-owner, Harold Ham. For Ham, 51, Mr. Friendly’s is home. He didn’t grow up with a plan to dominate the restaurant business, but he worked incredibly hard to make a living for himself as he got older and realized his passion. His perseverance and hard work have served him well in an industry with an extremely high failure rate within the first year, and have landed him raving reviews and awards year after year by people all over the U.S.
Ham grew up in playing baseball and Kick the can with his older brother and sister in Columbia. At 15, he started working at Piggly Wiggly bagging groceries. When he reached 17, he started down a different path.
“My father was in the military and my brother went into the Army reserves at 17, so the stage was set for me. During my junior year of high school, I joined the Army reserves,” recounted Ham. “After nine weeks of basic training, I went back to high school with my head shaved and trained to kill.”
After he graduated high school, he was sent to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for Advanced Individual Training as an operating room technician. When he returned from Texas, his newly-found drive led him to work at a landscaping company and manage a local Waffle House.
“Winters were slow at the company, so I supplemented my income by working in restaurants,” Ham said. “Waffle House was the most challenging job for me; the employees were a challenge to work with.”
Ham rose to the challenge and received his certificate of completion from Waffle House University, the three-day training program with senior operations management at the corporate office in Norcross, Georgia. After completion, he was hungry for another challenge. He worked at the Summit Club, Long Horn and Blue Marlin all before he decided to purchase Mr. Friendly’s.
“Working with fun people—customers and employees—is my favorite part about working at Mr. Friendly’s now. Treating customers the way I like to be treated keeps them coming in,” revealed Ham. “We started doing only lunch at the beginning but have evolved into a fine dining Southern cuisine restaurant.”
It seems like a fairytale story, but struggle was no stranger to Ham when Mr. Friendly’s was just starting out.
“There were times when it was very difficult to make payroll and pay bills on time. Finding good management is challenging,” Ham confessed.
But Ham wouldn’t let struggle define the early years. His motivation and passion helped him overcome setbacks and commence his restaurant’s upward trend. His infectious positivity and dedication to pleasing his customers created a work environment in which the staff feel like family.
His older sister, Angie Hutto, agrees that his success is in part due to his treatment of employees.
“He’s had success in every job he’s held; he’s worked hard and does his best at everything. He treats everyone with respect and genuinely cares for them, and I think that’s why he’s such a successful entrepreneur,” said Hutto.
With annual awards of Best Restaurant, Best Wait Staff and Best Southern Restaurant from various local newspapers under his belt, Ham’s hard work has undoubtedly paid off in the tough industry.
“It doesn’t matter what you do. The key is loving what you do. If you don’t enjoy getting up and going to work, you need to do something else,” advised Ham.