Note: This story appears in the Thursday, Nov. 14 newspaper on Page A6.
Travis Brand doesn’t know why ESPN personality Marty Smith brought his restaurant up in the first place, or why Joe Burrow gave his establishment what amounted to a ringing endorsement on national TV.
Brand just knows that life hasn’t been the same at Gigi’s Country Kitchen ever since.
“Gigi’s was being discussed, in Death Valley, by our hero Joe Burrow. That was pretty wild,” said Brand, the restaurant’s owner and primary cook.
It got wilder. Burrow, the starting quarterback at LSU and favorite son of Athens, has been the most dominant name in college football this season. The Tigers are now No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, and Burrow is considered by most to be the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, after LSU whipped Alabama last Saturday.
As Burrow’s season has reached incandescent levels, national media outlets have plumbed every depth and detail of the quarterback. So, when Burrow declared his appreciation for Gigi’s on a national interview 14 months ago, the restaurant became a fixture in most stories looking to show how The Plains still has Burrow’s back even after a transfer from the nearby college football behemoth (Ohio State) to another down south (LSU).
Suddenly Brand, who opened Gigi’s in 2011, was cast as a central figure in The Joe Burrow Show. The journalists came, then camera crews, and finally a full CBS segment that aired Saturday prior to the LSU-Alabama tilt.
Each story — from The New Orleans Times-Picayune to The Washington Post — wanted to show how Burrow’s home town still supported him. And Brand, through the assorted recent additions to the interior decor to the public messages of support on the outside sign, was happy to convey that message.
Still, it’s been a little jarring.
“It’s been kind of a blur,” Brand said. “You give them answers. You smile, you look pretty and try not to sound stupid.
“Someone walks in and says ‘I’m from the Washington Post, I’d like to ask you some questions.’ OK, great!” Brand said, laughing. “Today I learned how to fake my way through an interview with the Washington Post. Cool.”
Brand, like the Burrow family, is a transplant to the Athens area. He grew up on “the east side” of Cincinnati and moved to Athens County about 16 years ago to enroll at Hocking College and pursue a degree in restaurant management.
Brand pursued the Hospitality program further, and spent a few years after college working at the Ohio University Inn in Athens. In 2011, he pulled the trigger and opened Gigi’s, located at 105 N. Plains Road — right off of Route 682 — in The Plains.
The restaurant is named after his grandmother. It has a single-room dining area, with a counter, and runs breakfast through lunch shift (7 a.m. to 2 p.m.) every day. It’s complete with small-town charm, friendly and attentive service, and what Brand calls “the best egg-on” food you can find.
Since opening, it’s become a favorite of those close enough to stop in several times a week, and even has gained attention with the college student audience at OU as a hidden gem. It’s the kind of place with lots of regulars, and down-home favorites — the special this day is cabbage rolls — up and down the menu.
And also, at some point in the last eight years it became a favorite of Joe Burrow’s. Brand can’t tell you when Burrow first visited, but he recalls clearly when he became a Burrow fan.
It was 2013, and Brand’s daughter — as an elementary school cheerleader — was on the field at Athens High School for the varsity Homecoming game as part of a “buddy” system between the elementary and high school cheerleaders.
A self-professed “cheer dad,” Brand hadn’t been paying attention to the exploits of the Bulldogs’ football team or Burrow — the future Heisman Trophy candidate. That changed on Oct. 11, 2013. The Bulldogs blitzed Alexander that night, 83-14.
“That day, I became a football fan. This team is a big deal,” Brand said. “Joe Burrow is the reason, I, personally, became a football fan.”
Brand has remained a fan — through Burrow’s high school career, after he signed with OSU and still when Burrow transferred to LSU. Through it all, he kept updating the sign out front, which in turn got posted on social media, which in turn led to an interview question in September 2018 for Burrow.
“Gigi’s is my favorite breakfast place in Athens,” Burrow said in that interview, which aired on Sept. 13, 2018.
“Western omelet, double side of hash browns, every time I go home.”
Nowadays, Brand sees his restaurant’s social media reactions go through the roof. Where before 100 likes or a few hundred views would constitute a big day, it’s not uncommon now for a Facebook post to get 10-20,000 views.
That’s the power of Burrow, a football-crazed fan base in Baton Rouge, and the internet.
“I’ve said this a lot, but it’s been so crazy,” Brand said. “He loves Gigi’s, what can I say? That’s awesome.
“For whatever reason, that came up that day in Death Valley. We’ll take it. We love it,” he continued. “It’ll be our pleasure to feed him Western omelets.”
Don’t get it twisted. Brand isn’t complaining in the least. And he’s been able to get by the feeling of awkwardness that comes with being attached to someone else’s work thanks to conversations with the Burrow family.
Yes, he’s going to rename the Western omelet to “The Burrow.” He’s proud to see what’s become of Burrow’s playing career. But the last thing he wants is for anyone to think he’s anything but a bit player in The Burrow Show.
There’s been (possibly?) some weird calls to the restaurant from the State of Alabama. There have been calls of support from LSU fans in Baton Rouge. There have been the interviews and video shoots inside his restaurant.
Brand has even been invited, and plans to accept, an invitation from some LSU fans to attend the Tigers’ home game with Texas A&M later this month. These are dizzying, heady times for Gigi’s.
But Brand hasn’t forgot the reason for the hubbub in the first place.
“I was proud to open a business at 27 years old. That’s where I hang my hat,” Brand said. “I hang my hat on our daily victories. The health inspector eats here. Those are my wins.
“I do what I do on a daily basis,” he continued. “This other stuff is just a whirlwind that we’ve been blessed to take part in.
“It’s the Joe Burrow Show, and we’re just living in it. It’s a humbling experience for all of us,” Brand added, referring to the staff of a dozen who works at Gigi’s. “It’s just blown us away.”