Ray City eatery wins QuickBooks prize

·2 min read

Jul. 31—RAY CITY — When Michael Heard received an email claiming he and his wife, Heather, had won $20,000, he promptly trashed it.

"I thought it was spam," he said.

It wasn't.

The Heards' daughter and her roommate had entered them in a contest by intuit QuickBooks, manufacturer of financial software. The contest was a celebration of small business heroes, company representatives said in a statement.

Michael and Heather Heard were honored by QuickBooks for keeping the paychecks for their employees at Ray's Millpond Cafe going even though the restaurant had to close for long stretches as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fortunately for the Heards, after the company didn't hear back about the email, the firm tracked the Heards down and delivered the news again by phone.

"We were stunned," Michael Heard said.

Heather Heard's great-grandmother opened Ray's Millpond Cafe in 1963. It has been in the family ever since. Ray's Millpond features catfish, gator and red snapper among its specialties. A sign in the parking lot warns patrons to beware the alligators and snakes in the area; the restaurant is directly beside a lake.

Anyone entering the restaurant shouldn't ask for Ray; he doesn't exist. Heather Heard said the restaurant was named for Ray City.

Heather and Michael Heard took over the restaurant from her parents in January 2020 — just before the pandemic kicked into full gear.

The Heards are the only full-time workers at the cafe; there are 35 part-timers who work there as well.

"We had to close for three months in 2020," Heather said. An emergency order by Gov. Brian Kemp forced many restaurants to close up shop as a pandemic-fighting measure.

During that time, Heather's father got the ball rolling on obtaining government aid to keep the paychecks going out to their workers, she said.

"We were slow in reopening, waiting for the customers to come back," she said.

The $20,000 from QuickBooks, which arrived five weeks ago, couldn't have come at a better time. Michael said he, Heather and four of their five children were knocked off their feet by COVID-19 and the restaurant had to shutter again for two days.

"Some of the prize money went to keeping the employees paid," he said, adding the rest will be used for needed repairs and maintenance.

Terry Richards is senior reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times.