Valerie Queener asks about an order over the counter to the kitchen staff of the Mountaineer Restaurant in Church Hill during a busy lunch hour. Queener has worked at the restaurant for 14 years and met her husband there. Photo by Erica Yoon.
CHURCH HILL — Forty years worth of Hawkins County country cooking comes to an end next week.
The 192-seat Mountaineer Restaurant in Church Hill is closing Thursday, April 3, and will be torn down to make way for a Walgreens, according to owner Jim Lewis.
“We just weren’t able to reach the younger generation,” Lewis, who sold to Morristown developers Don and Michael Bunch, said in a Thursday phone interview. “It’s hard for a mom-and-pop restaurant to work.”
He said business had been down for about two years, hurt by high gasoline prices, high food prices — and a declining number of elderly clientele not being replaced with younger folks.
The pending closure leaves 95-year-old Marty Martin of Mount Carmel wondering where he’ll get his lunches and dinners. He usually catches a ride from Mount Carmel to Church Hill twice a day to eat at the Mountaineer.
Martin was laughing and cutting up with waitresses, but not all customers were as cheerful.
“We’ve already had customers crying here today,” restaurant general manager Kelly Bungert said during lunch Thursday. “They eat here breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Bungert said the staff and management of the restaurant want to thank all their customers for years of patronage.
Bungert and assistant manager Renee Williams, part of a restaurant staff of 44, took turns taking each other’s photographs with Martin, who was called “family” by Bungert.
Thanked for his comments for a newspaper article, Martin said, “If it was an article enough to make them stay, I’d be right with you.”
He then ate his favorite meal, the meat loaf plate that Williams has served him over the years.
“I’ve been here since I was 16,” Williams said of her 11 years working at the restaurant. “I grew up here.”
In recent months, Williams said the “rumors (of closure) have killed us” and kept customers away.
Rex and Joyce Cradic of Mount Carmel were awaiting their lunch Thursday after calling to be sure the restaurant was still open, something Bungert said Martin recently has done every day.
“We’ll miss the Mountaineer, that’s all I can tell you. I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Rex Cradic said of the community gathering place.
Attorney Chris Raines said he hopes someone takes the cue to “open a good country lunch” place in or around Church Hill. Joyce Cradic was more blunt.
“I prayed the deal would fall through,” she said. “I hope someone opens a restaurant.”
The planned Walgreens is about five miles from a Walgreens just off 11-W at Allandale, which is about 3.5 miles from another Walgreens to the east on 11-W in Kingsport.
Bungert, who has headed operations at the restaurant for about a decade, said she’ll miss the “camaraderie of all the customers and employees.”
Martin, still gesturing and joking, was the lone person sitting on a stool at the Formica lunch counter Thursday afternoon.
“We usually eat fish on Fridays. We sometimes eat soup beans or corn bread,” said nearby customer Bruce Roberts, who along with friend and fellow contractor Frank Hall usually eats lunch there every week day.
“It’s not like going to one of those fast-food places,” Roberts said. “You can get a little conversation along with your meal.”
Hall said he and his Church Hill High School classmates, who meet each Saturday morning at the restaurant, will have to find another breakfast location where they can “sit and talk” after eating.
Aside from locals, Bungert said the restaurant draws regular customers from Kingsport and Rogersville, as well as Bluff City, Bristol and Elizabethton. However, some “regulars” come from much farther.
Elwood and Madge Fisher of Harrisonburg, Va., happened by the Mountaineer on Thursday for lunch while returning home from her brother’s funeral, not knowing it would be their last meal there. They used to stop at the Mountaineer every six weeks or so on trips between Harrisonburg and a Kentucky farm.
“This is one of our favorite places to stop,” Elwood Fisher said. “The food’s always been very good here. We’ve never had a bad meal.”
Williams and Madge Fisher said some of the restaurant’s signature offerings are desserts, including the nine-scoop banana split that can feed a family of four. Other desserts include hot fudge cake, strawberry shortcake and various pies, including cobblers.
The Mountaineer also offers chicken and dumplings, meat loaf, fried chicken, beef and chicken liver, plus vegetables and other side items, hamburgers and sandwiches.
Bungert said that Frankie Pointer opened the first Mountaineer in 1968. It was in a building in Mount Carmel that most recently housed Skip’s Diner before being torn down to make way for an O’Reilly Auto Parts.
She said the eatery moved to its current location, 190 S. Central Ave., around 1979.
N.E. and Betty Moore bought the Mountaineer from Pointer on June 1, 1994, and then Jim Lewis bought it from the Moores July 1, 2006, she said.
The restaurant will remain open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week until it closes next Thursday night for the last time.