Photos by K2 Images
Meet James Otis Carter, 65 year-old president and director of Carter Enterprises. Carter’s entrepreneurial range includes founding the Texas Burger franchise, as well as owning locations of Pizza Hut, Subway, Taco Bell, Church’s Chicken, Three Spoons, and a host of other corporations in and around East Texas. To call this Madisonville native, husband, and father of six a success is, quite frankly, an understatement. Yet, he presents a genuine “aw, shucks” humbleness that’s worthy of headlines reading “Local Boy Done Good.” He’s never forgotten where he’s come from. In fact, that’s what makes him the man he is today—truly interesting.
For me, I was raised up with really wonderful parents. My mother really enjoyed cooking and was a wonderful cook, too. I’m so grateful she let me cook with her all the time. As a little boy, I learned to enjoy cooking, I guess because I always cooked with her.
My parents owned a small grocery store called Carter’s Grocery. But my two favorite passions growing up were basketball and cooking. We had this little mom and pop hamburger place called Dairy-D-Lite. I can still see my daddy do the hamburger meat every day at the grocery store. We’d take the meat to the ladies at the place, and they’d pat those patties out by hand and season it with salt and pepper. They were really good hamburgers. I told myself as a little boy that I’d love to make a living with this someday and maybe try and do more than just that little small place.
I enjoyed having a chance to learn. I learned how to cook and enjoyed it. I learned what good food really tasted like. I went on through high school and graduated. Then it was off to junior college, and later I graduated from Stephen F. Austin with a degree in business management. Really, what I thought I was going to do was come back and take over the family grocery store business, but it just was not what I really wanted to do long-term.
My parents. They were wonderful people. They helped me get my first business loan from the bank to start my own business in 1973.
It was called Dairy Palace. We ended up changing the name a number of years later to Texas Burger. Our concept was based on what I remembered growing up. Fresh handmade burgers. Never frozen. At that time, we did the patties ourselves. We’d grind the meat in the back of the store and pat them out, season the meat, and toast the buns. That always made them taste better in my opinion.
Oh, yes I was. At the time, I wasn’t married. I’d finished college in ’71 and worked for my father a couple of years. Then I started this business in ’73 and didn’t get married until ’77. But, I worked open to close pretty much every day. I loved to cook. I was mainly in the kitchen, making sure the food was cooked just right. It was special to me to take our food out to our customers and see them enjoy a quality hamburger. I knew the food was good, but I always asked anyway. It’s hard to beat a fresh hamburger. I was so proud of those burgers. I’d put ‘em up against anybody’s—especially today. I enjoyed cooking and serving people. But it was only by the grace of God that we were able to do okay.
I’m so grateful to have a wife and six children. Three of my sons are in the business with me today. Faith has really taught us all to have a heart for people. When you’re in a business that feeds people, you just can’t do it right without having a heart for the people. That only comes through faith in the Lord. Every opportunity we have to live our faith and help people in need and want to do better, we try to do the best we can. I say this very humbly, because life is not all about financial gain. What’s more important is can you feed the hungry and make a difference. I know that, as a company, it’s more important to do that.
My wife has been my biggest encourager all of these years. She spent countless hours raising our children, which allowed me the time to manage our business. Having our sons join the business now—and seeing what a great job they are doing—truly makes the hard work all worth it.
It’s very important for us to offer jobs to people especially in my hometown. We’ve been fortunate to have good people in our restaurants. Several have been with us a long time. You know, being able to keep people and promote from within, in small towns, is so important to us. We get a chance to see people better themselves, and that’s what it’s all about to me. We care, not only about the people we employ and their professional development, but their lives and their families.
It’s good to be able to drive to places in a reasonable amount of time. I just wanted to stay within a 100-mile radius of Madisonville, if I could. Most of the restaurants we operate are in small towns the size of Madisonville. Being raised in a small town, I tend to understand things better. People tend to know one another a lot better, and we care about each other. I’m not saying they don’t care in larger cities, but in small towns, I see more camaraderie. You can be more involved in a small town, and that’s always a lot of fun. For instance, the high school football team is always a big deal and a joy to follow them. The band or whatever our children or our neighbor’s children are involved in—sharing in that joyful aspect of all our lives together is really cool. You know folks by name. You grow up with people and see their children grow up. The churches are important, and lots of people go to church in smaller towns. I get to see just as many sermons in people’s lives as I get to hear on Sunday mornings.
Just speaking from my perspective being raised in a small town, I’ve learned to appreciate it a lot more. For example, when someone passes away, it’s people who really care that bring food. People reach out to one another in a special way in small towns.
You never know what people are going through. If we want things in our lives or the country to get better, it’s important for us to learn to encourage one another. I’m reminded of a story of a little boy that didn’t do well in grade school. He was noted for sleeping in class and falling behind in his schoolwork. It was discovered that his mother was sick and later died that year. Christmas came around, and kids were exchanging gifts. This little boy brought the teacher a small bracelet that belonged to his mother. He put it in a brown paper bag and gave it to his teacher. All the other kids laughed at him. The teacher looked at it and began to lift his spirits and encourage him. She began to see the change in him and realized that all he needed was a little encouragement.
As time went on, he finished junior high in the top five percent of his class. He sent a note back to that teacher, telling her she was the best teacher he ever had. He went on to finish high school, college and medical school. At each level, he’d send that same teacher a note thanking her for being the best teacher he ever had. After med school, he got married and invited his favorite teacher to his wedding. She showed up still wearing the bracelet that had belonged to his mother. They had not seen each other for a number of years, but he hugged her and thanked her for being the best teacher he ever had. When the teacher asked him why he felt that way, he told her that now he was a doctor and was in a position to save many lives. However, none of it would have ever been possible without her encouraging words. A word of encouragement goes a mighty long way.