When Warren “Choppy” Woodward walked into A.B. Beverage Company on his very first day of work back in 1967, he didn’t know what to expect.
“I remember that I came to work on July 3 and I worked for one day and then had the day off because of the Fourth of July holiday. But I remember that first day vividly,” Woodward said, smiling. “Back then, the company was located at 1103 Walton Way, which is across from the Cadillac dealership. They just tore that old building down last month. Well, I came in and they showed me this big old room that was dusty as it could be and full of point-of-sale signs. They looked at me and just said, ‘Straighten this room up.’”
“So that’s what I did. I got in there and I straightened up that big ol’ dusty room. I didn’t stop until I was done,” Woodward said, laughing. “I threw the stuff away that they wanted thrown out and went through all of the signs and saved what they had that could still be used.”
At the end of the day, his new boss was extremely impressed.
So began Woodward’s new job at A.B. Beverage that would eventually blossom into a 50-year career that he loves dearly.
“This company has meant an awful lot to me over the years,” Woodward said. “I’m 76 years old and, gosh, it’s my life. I can’t think of anything I could have done that would have been more fun.”
“And I work for the best people in the world. I mean, you can’t beat Cathy and Doug (Varnadore). They are like my family.”
Cathy Varnadore, president of A.B. Beverage, feels the same way about Woodward. Just last week, Varnadore and the entire A.B. Beverage family threw Woodward a surprise party to celebrate his 50 years of dedicated service to the company.
Woodward said it has been an honor to work for such a tight-knit, family owned company for the past five decades.
“We are all very close here. Of course, I worked for Cathy’s father, Joe Pond,” Woodward said, adding that Pond had a wonderfully dry sense of humor.
“Joe (Pond) was quite a guy. We always had a good time. We used to fish together and he was just a fun guy to be around. He was my employer, but he was also my friend and one never got in the way of the other. It just always worked out. I miss him.”
For more than seven years, Pond battled cancer, while still sharing his love for life with everyone around him. Unfortunately, Pond passed away in 2006.
Today, the company is run by Joe Pond’s daughter, Cathy Varnadore, and her husband, Doug. Cathy is the third generation to lead the family-owned beer distribution company.
Joe Pond actually worked for his father, Miles Joseph Pond, at A.B. Beverage and became president of the company in 1978 after his father died.
“Prohibition ended around December 1933, but Georgia didn’t really go wet until 1934,” Woodward said. “So the company opened up over in Hamburg, S.C., and was named Aiken Barnwell Beverage Company. That’s where A.B. comes from. And now it is a family-owned business led by a third generation, which is remarkable. You can’t beat that.”
As Woodward walks the halls of A.B. Beverage these days and looks at all the black- and-white photos lining the walls in the company’s current Evans location, he can’t help but smile at the past.
“That’s a picture of Miles Pond and this lady worked here forever,” Woodward said, pointing to a photo of a beautiful young woman. “Her name was Birdie. Believe it or not, she left just before I came here. But I know several of the people in these black and white photos who I worked with over the years.”
As Woodward walked around the building, he recalled many of the good times he’s had at the company over the past 50 years.
“I remember the first company Christmas party I ever went to,” Woodward said, laughing. “I bet you there wasn’t more than 16 to 18 people at that Christmas party. That’s spouses and all. Now we have 150 folks, so that gives you an idea of the growth and what has happened in this business.”
Over the years, A.B. Beverage Company has continued to expand along with the ever-growing popularity of beers throughout this country. In fact, A.B. Beverage recently expanded its 50,000-square-foot Evans warehouse specifically for craft beers.
“When I came to work here we had three flavors. We had Budweiser, Busch Bavarian, and Michelob. Personally, I’m still a Budweiser fan, myself,” Woodward said, chuckling.
“Well, I grew up drinking Budweiser. But it is amazing how different the beer business is these days. All of the craft beers have really changed things. We probably have more than 50 different flavors today and no telling how many different packages in all different sizes. Big sizes, little sizes and now we have the sixth barrels that have five gallons of beer. I never dreamed I’d see those things, but that is what most of the craft breweries are using. It is just amazing to me the amount of those things that we sell.”
But Woodward said he has always adapted well and grown along with the business.
“While I started at 1103 Walton Way in 1967, we moved down to Laney Walker in 1973,” he said. “And, of course, we moved here to Evans in 1992. So I’ve been in three different locations in the 50 years that I’ve worked here.”
And through the years, Woodward said he has served in several different positions and roles throughout the company.
“When I started off working here, I hung signs,” Woodward said. “I worked at Fort Gordon and hung signs for a while. Then, I worked a route out there. Eventually, I went on a non-military, civilian, regular route and I worked that route for nine years.”
After working the same route for almost a decade, he became extremely attached to his regular customers, Woodward said.
“But I remember we only had one supervisor back then because we didn’t have that many employees. We really just needed one,” Woodward said. “And the guy that was the supervisor had health problems and he had to retire in 1975 or 1976. So, Miles Pond was living back then and he called me into his office one day and said, ‘You know, we need a new supervisor. I would like for you to take the job.’”
At first, Woodward turned down the position.
“I said, ‘You know what. I have been working this route for nine years and I really got to know these people. You get to be like family,’” Woodward said. “And I remember Miles Pond said, ‘I know. I understand. I’ve done the same thing. But I really need you to be our supervisor.’”
Woodward knew there were very few employees at the company at that time with his level of experience.
So, while he loved his route, he couldn’t say no to the Pond family.
“I agreed and went ahead and became the supervisor,” Woodward said. “I did that for about 10 years or so. Then, one day Joe (Pond) came up with a new idea. He told me, ‘I want people to know who we are. They know we sell beer and all that, but they don’t know who we are. I want you to start getting out and talking to people and letting them know who we are.’”
It was Woodward’s introduction to the world of public relations and marketing.
He officially became A.B. Beverage’s public relations and promotions manager.
“So I started doing that and, at the same time, all of these special events started to happen around 1987,” Woodward said. “So those special events were part of what I did and still do. That’s the main thing I do now.”
While Woodward jokes that he has slowed down a little bit over the past few years, he says he still thoroughly enjoys promoting all the events that A.B. Beverage offers the community throughout the year such as Papa Joe’s Banjo-B-Que & Music Festival.
“The events are what I like. Those are fun. I like the festivals and the concerts,” Woodward said. “Some people, because it is weekend work, they don’t care for it because they want to be off on the weekends. But I’ve been doing it for so long and I always did enjoy it. And, let’s face it, you’ve got to like doing it. If you don’t like it, it ain’t going to work out.”
Woodward said he has also always loved his hometown of Augusta.
“I grew up right here in Augusta on Wrightsboro Road, just east of where Augusta Mall is now,” Woodward said, adding he is a proud graduate of Richmond Academy.
“Augusta is home. It’s where I live and I like it here. I’ve traveled a good bit over the years, but I just haven’t found anywhere that I like any better.”
Woodward has been married to his wife, Jackie, for more than 50 years and the couple has two grown children, Casey and Brent.
“We also have four grandchildren. My daughter, Casey, who lives in Salt Lake City, has two little girls, 10 and 7,” Woodward said. “And my son, Brent, lives down in Orlando and he has a 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.”
The entire family traveled to Augusta to celebrate Woodward’s 50 years of service at A.B. Beverage, followed by a relaxing beach vacation along the South Carolina coast.
Family has always played a huge role in Woodward’s life.
“My dad grew up on Moore Avenue right here in Augusta. He was one of 12 kids, so he came from a big family. And my mom was actually born on Washington Road,” Woodward said. “My grandfather was a cotton farmer. He never owned the land on Washington Road, but right there where Augusta National is or just west of Augusta National there was a big old white house that was eventually turned into a real estate office. Well, my mom was born in that old house in 1909.”
Being a cotton farmer in the early 1900s was a challenge, Woodward said.
“I’m not sure what year my grandfather started raising cotton, but it was before 1913 because he told me that the boll weevil came in 1913,” he said. “The boll weevil came up from Mexico and worked its way on up to Georgia.”
The boll weevil wreaked havoc on the entire area’s cotton crop, Woodward said.
“I remember he jokingly told me, ‘I didn’t work too much. My friends and farmers just planted enough cotton for us and the boll weevil, too. But it turned out that you couldn’t plant enough for the boll weevil. The boll weevil was too greedy,’” Woodward said, laughing. “After that, he actually went broke and the family moved back to south Richmond County and that’s where my mother grew up. She went to Hephzibah High School.”
Woodward’s grandfather on his dad’s side came to Augusta from Montmorenci, S.C., around 1892.
“My grandfather was a butcher by trade. He opened up a butcher shop at 15th Street and Walton Way,” Woodward said. “Of course, that area doesn’t look anything like it did back then.”
After more than 75 years of living in Augusta, Woodward said he is always amazed at the city’s continuous growth.
“Just look at Wrightsboro Road where I grew up. It is just absolutely amazing to me how much it has changed,” Woodward said. “When I was growing up, we would play around our house that was about 300 feet back off the road. We would play in a big old field out in front of the house that had huge trees all around it. As a kid, I remember noticing that there weren’t many cars. You could go a long time without a car going by. Now, if you go for a minute without seeing a car go by, you wonder where everybody went.”
And, here’s the $50,000 question: Where did the nickname “Choppy” come from?
“My dad started calling me Choppy when I was a baby,” Woodward said, smiling. “The funny thing was, he did not know why himself. He has been gone a good while now, but I asked him before he died where Choppy came from and he said, ‘I just started calling you that for some reason. I don’t know why.’ It just stuck.”
However, Woodward says he’s not the only Choppy in Augusta.
“I remember my wife, Jackie, and I were shopping at T.J. Maxx one day and she called out, ‘Choppy!’” Woodward said, adding that there was a young, African-American man standing next to her in the store. “When she called out my name, it startled him, so she asked, ‘Is your name Choppy?’ And he said, ‘Yes. That is my nickname. That’s what people call me.’ And she said, ‘That’s what my husband’s nickname is, too.’”
The two men began talking about where the name Choppy came from.
“He told me he was a school teacher and worked for Richmond County,” Woodward said. “The one similarity that we could figure out was, my name is Warren Charles Woodward and his first name is Charles, but I really don’t think that has anything to do with it.”
Woodward has only met a handful of other men nicknamed Choppy over the years.
“There is one guy that used to run a marina down at Sullivan’s Island called Choppy’s Marina. He was there for a long time,” Woodward said. “There was another one over in Columbus, Ga. My brother-in-law was stationed at Fort Benning years ago and there was a guy who ran Choppy’s Drive-In Restaurant on Victory Drive. I never met him, but I knew he was over there. So I’m not the only Choppy around.”
When it comes to thinking about his future, Woodward said he isn’t ready to retire just yet.
“People ask me that all the time and I don’t know,” Woodward said, laughing.
“I doubt if I’ll ever totally quit. Of course, everybody reaches the point that you’re not able to do it anymore. But as long as I’m healthy and feel good and like what I’m doing and they want me to stay, I will probably keep on doing something because I enjoy it. That’s the thing. I really enjoy it.”
Being an employee at A.B. Beverage for the past 50 years has never felt like “work” because he has enjoyed every minute of it, Woodward said.
“I love my job,” Woodward said, as he looked around the office that he shares with his boss, Cathy Varnadore. “However, I have told them, if I ever quit having fun, I’ll be the first to say it’s time for me to go. Because they don’t want me here and I don’t need to be here if I’m not having a good time. But I can’t imagine not having a good time. I love it here.”