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We'll miss you, Shoney's (if you're in fact going away)

  • 5 min to read
January 1965: Big Boy is coming and Peggy Ann's is getting bigger

Goodbye, Shoney’s. I hate to see you go.

If you haven’t heard, today is (or isn’t) the last day of operation for the Shoney’s on Fort Henry Drive in Kingsport. It’s a sad day for many of my friends and family who have enjoyed Shoney’s for nearly 56 years. Management would not confirm the restaurant will close today when my fellow Times News reporter Matthew Lane sought comment for a news article last week. Owners of the property didn’t return his calls. Neither did owners of a company that appears to have plans to build a carwash at the site.

I’ll be 58 next month. The restaurant is not much younger.

Shoney’s Big Boy Restaurant on Fort Henry Drive was not only the first in Kingsport, it was the first in “Upper East” Tennessee — and 63rd in the nation. It opened on Jan. 20, 1965 (Inauguration Day for President Lyndon Baines Johnson), and had been in the works since at least 1963. Its proposed construction required a rezoning, which nearby Litz Manor residents fought against. At the time, what is now the Fort Henry Mall was just “the Roller woods.”

Its opening manager was Don Harris, who supervised about 70 employees hired to work as cooks, curb hops, hostesses, and dishwashers, according to a Times News article published on Jan. 17, 1965. The article on the new 5,600-square-foot $250,000 Shoney’s, with seating for 120 inside, space for 42 automobiles under its special covered curb service parking area (with phones for ordering), and room for 75 more cars opposite the “curb” area, was wrapped around a smaller article noting “Peggy Ann’s Restaurant Adding More Dining Space.”

A Shoney’s chain spokesman said “short orders” would be served within three or four minutes after being placed. The article also explained the new Shoney’s was set up in “two compartments,” one to serve outside diners, the other to serve inside diners.

The article noted Shoney’s had plans to construct a restaurant in Johnson City. They did. And two opened in Bristol. By late 1966, there was a second Shoney’s in Kingsport. What had been built and opened as a Howard Johnson’s Restaurant, on Stone Drive near the Lynn Garden Drive interchange, became Shoney’s No. 2 on Dec. 16, 1966. The hotel and restaurant properties had changed hands in January 1965, and the new owners and the Howard Johnson brand had parted ways, with the hotel becoming Tennessee Motor Lodge as of Oct. 1, 1966. At the time Shoney’s No. 2 was announced as the new tenant of the restaurant next door, the owners said it was expected to remain closed for remodeling until Jan. 1, 1967. Unlike Shoney’s No. 1 on Fort Henry Drive, a Times New article on Dec. 17 noted, Shoney’s No. 2 would not offer drive-in service.

The day the Shoney’s opened on Fort Henry Drive, the Kingsport Times included multiple congratulatory advertisements from firms involved in its construction: Citizens Supply Corp.; Kingsport Paint & Wallpaper Co.; Roberts & Johnson Lumber Co.; J.H. Watkins Co., mechanical contractors; P.C. Cooper, contractor, for paving; Deel’s Floorcoverings; Mullins & Quillen, insulation and tile contractors; Johnson & Hilliard, Inc.

“Everyone’s going ... see you there!” was the slogan from an official Shoney’s ad, which described the new eatery as “ultra-modern” and “home of the original double-deck hamburger.”

On the front page that day, U.S. Congressman James H. Quillen, 1st District, Tenn., had been named the day before to “the powerful House Rules Committee.” And the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen had the night before set a bid-opening date for “by far the largest single building project of the city,” construction of the “new” Dobyns-Bennett High School. Voters earlier had approved an up to $6 million bond issue to pay for “the futuristic school building.”

My earliest memory of Shoney’s (No. 1, oddly, I don’t remember Shoney’s No. 2 at all) isn’t a pleasant one. I was very young and in the backseat with my two siblings. Dad and Mom were in the front seat. We were dining in the car, served by a car hop, at the restaurant’s covered drive-in service area. I don’t remember if we were in Dad’s 50s Dodge coupe or Mom’s 60s, tail-finned (fintailed?) four-door Plymouth. But a few spaces over from us another family was eating in their turquoise Cadillac with a white top.

And one of the children in that backseat got sick and vomited out the window.

Maybe that’s when Mom started trying her hand at making faux Slim Jim sandwiches at home. I still love a Slim Jim, even homemade. It’s probably my all-time favorite thing from the Shoney’s menu (except, maybe, for breakfast buffet).

Shoney’s “World Famous” strawberry pie, of course, was a favorite of many. My Aunt Ova loved them. A lot of people tried to make copycat versions at home. One such soul was my friend Vicki’s mom, JoAnn Hall.

“They were good,” Vicki said Friday, as we shared Shoney’s memories. “But they were never quite the same. Mom loved Shoney’s strawberry pies.”

Vicki’s personal favorite is Shoney’s Hot Fudge Cake, which she remembers not only as a special treat from her own childhood (especially post-pageant chow-down visits) but as a go-to with her own son Nicholas Cooper as he was growing up.

My sister-in-law Kim worked at the Abingdon Shoney’s when she was in high school, ringing up to-go orders. She never tired of Hot Fudge Cake.

Throughout the 1980s and probably into the early 1990s, my family routinely took visiting relatives to Shoney’s for breakfast. Mom and I have many fond memories of sitting around a large table with my grandmother, Uncle Harold, cousin John and cousin Susie. I remember late night post-movie dinners with high school friends (after the mall opened with its AMC multi-screen theater), and just coffee and dessert catch-up sessions with cousins. Like Vicki, I mainly remember eating in the “old” building. If you don’t know, the original restaurant sat closer to the highway and was torn down and replaced by the current building.

Mom’s forever memory of Shoney’s will be the last time she visited, sharing breakfast with my Aunt Gracie (Tankersley Wallen) after mom had spent the night with her at her Kiwanis Towers apartment. Aunt Gracie is a big Shoney’s fan as well.

What happened to Shoney’s No. 2 on Stone Drive in Kingsport? An article from November 1971 reported state revenue agents had visited five Shoney’s restaurants in the Tri-Cities area and confiscated all the cash from each location because sales taxes from the restaurants hadn’t reached Nashville in then-recent months. As a result, according to the article, three of the businesses were “out of business” (at least temporarily), and the two in Kingsport were under new management or ownership. The one on Stone Drive was taken over by the Tennessee Motor Lodge, which turned it into its own non-chain restaurant (which eventually became The Arena, and, more recently, The Hog Wild).

An advertisement published in the Times News in February 1972 announced two men as new part owners or owner-operators of Shoney’s locations in Asheville, Bristol, Johnson City and the Fort Henry Drive location in Kingsport.

The pie pictured with this article is a homemade version. Recipes abound in church and community cookbooks, especially those published in the 1970s and 1980s. I used the following recipe, which Vicki Cooper Trammell shared in tribute to her mother JoAnn.

Two 9-inch deep-dish pie crusts, defrosted, baked and cooled.

In a medium saucepan on medium heat, bring 3 cups sugar (with 6 tablespoons of cornstarch mixed in) and 3 cups of water to a slow boil, stirring frequently, until glaze thickens and rolls slowly from spoon). Remove from heat and immediately add two small boxes strawberry gelatin. Stir vigorously until gelatin is well dissolved. Place saucepan into a large bowl of ice and stir slowly until glaze cools.

Distribute cleaned, hulled fresh strawberries (I used about two pounds for two pies) between the two pie shells (spread a thin layer of glaze on each crust first), then cover with cooled glaze. Refrigerate 2-4 hours. Top  with whipped cream before serving.

Note: This made more than enough glaze for two pies (JoAnn must have had really deep pie pans). I had a about a pint leftover.