KINGSPORT - Fair warning all you Pal's Big Tea aficionados - this story might make you: feel old (if 20 years seems like a long time); purse your lips (whole lot a lemons mentioned); drive straight to the nearest Pal's (while wondering how long it would take if that took you from New York to Los Angeles); and maybe hum a little of "O Canada" (keep reading) when you get there.
For two decades, a daily dose of Pal's tea has been de rigueur for many people in the region.
The Kingsport-based Pal's Sudden Service restaurant chain is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the "Big Tea," in the now ubiquitous 32-ounce white Styrofoam cup.
It's always been big, in more ways than one, says Pal's CEO Thom Crosby.
And that cup? No accident, according to Crosby.
"We wanted to give our customer's an all-day sipper," Crosby said earlier this week. "It needed to be large enough to last well beyond their Big Pal and Frenchie Fries. We knew about two months after we started offering the Big Tea, we had a big, big, winner. It was like a rocket, it just took off."
Crosby, a self-described "tea connoisseur," says he knew if Pal's was going to do "Big Teas," the final product would have to stand up to the restaurant chain's demand for excellence - in taste and presentation.
Even the Styrofoam cup went through testing.
"We wanted to make sure it was sweat-proof," Crosby said. "And we work hard to keep the cost down. That's why we don't have our logo or any artwork on the cup. It saves money. There is one thing though that gives away the fact that you've got the real deal, and that is the trademarked yellow straw with red striping. It says it's the best!"
The tea itself actually comes from Sri Lanka, Crosby said, but not from the first harvest.
"We only take the second harvest," Crosby said. "It's a better, higher-quality product."
Pal's, with 20 locations in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, is famous for sudden service - but behind the scenes, Pal's employees take their time and make tea "the old fashioned way," Crosby said.
"Our competitors brew tea like coffee," he said. "That's where we do things a little differently. That's the secret. We use big buckets and bags, and boil the water to make sure it's just right. We also taste test each and every batch, And with specially trained tea-makers preparing 655 batches a day, there is a lot of tasting going on."
On both sides of the counter.
Josh Thompson, general manager of Pal's #1 on Revere Street in downtown Kingsport, says some Big Tea customers come in like clockwork.
"One gentleman comes in every morning and gets three Big Teas," Thompson said. "We have tons of regulars like that. It is just wild. We start to worry if they're not here by lunchtime."
According to Pal's:
•Over the past 20 years, the chain has sold 71,346,228 Big Teas.
•That's enough tea to give not one, but two, Big Teas to every man, woman and child in Canada.
•The cups alone would cover 7,882 miles - enough to go from New York to Los Angeles three times.
•Every single day, Pal's uses 10 tons of ice just to make the tea - enough ice, everyday, to fill an entire tractor-trailer.
•Pal's slices and uses 4,800 lemons a day - to fill orders that total about 2,600 gallons of tea.
•The popularity of the Big Tea is what prompted Pal's to develop its breakfast menu. "People used to come by in the morning when we were closed and peck on the window." Crosby said. "They'd say ‘Hey, I know you're closed, but got any tea.' Then we decided to open earlier. That worked for awhile but then we heard, ‘Gosh, it would sure be nice if I could get my morning biscuit here, too.'"
•That's not the only time Pal's customers have gotten their way when it comes to tea. After two years of development - to get the flavoring just right - "Peachie Tea" was meant to be a limited-time-only thing when it was introduced in 2001. "We were going to do it as a summer promotion," Crosby said. "But when it was gone, we had a riot on our hands. They wanted their Peachie Tea. Now, Peachie Tea is also a permanent part of the menu."
To mark the 20th anniversary of the Big Tea, Pal's will offer commemorative "Tea-shirts" - four different designs will be available - for sale at all Pal's locations beginning June 25.
The shirts will be available at select Pal's locations on June 21-22. Supplies are limited, and based on demand for Pal's 50th Anniversary T-shirts last year, sales are expected to be brisk, Crosby said.
Shirts are $15 each and both cash and credit cards will be accepted.
The early sales "Tea-shirt Tour" dates, times and locations: •June 21 - 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., Fort Henry Drive, Kingsport; 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., Revere Street, Kingsport; 12 p.m. to 2 p.m., Volunteer Parkway, Bristol, Tenn.; 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., State of Franklin, Johnson City.
•June 22 - 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., Rogersville; 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Church Hill.