Shoney’s was one of the best restaurants in my small Tennessee town growing up, and at one time, it was the place to go in Columbia to be seen on a Friday or Saturday night.
As I sat in the Columbia location for Thanksgiving lunch and for Free Hot Fudge Cake Day a week later, I was flooded both times with nostalgic, feel-good memories of the iconic brand.
My father helped open a Shoney’s restaurants in Cookeville, about 70 miles east of Nashville, when I was a little boy. He was part of the breakfast crews who introduced the popular breakfast bar during its heyday.
Late in his life — until he died in 2012 at age 80 — dad would drive to town every morning from his farm outside Sparta and have a breakfast bar at Shoney’s. He drank a cup of coffee and ate lightly from the breakfast bar, and they only charged him $1. The managers, cooks and waitresses always treated him with great respect and admiration for having been and around Shoney’s for 50 years.
Looking back, I’ll never forget how they made my father feel or how excited I was to go to Shoney’s into my college years. Shoney’s briefly opened a franchise in Phoenix when I was working in Arizona in the 1990s, and I would take friends and colleagues to lunch and wax poetically about how highly regarded Shoney’s was down South.
Through the years, Shoney’s lost part of its sizzle as the place to go. Maybe that’s partly because of Cracker Barrel’s emergence as the go-to place for breakfast and country cooking. Maybe it’s because Waffle House’s no-frills locations could whip up bacon, eggs and waffles as fast as their smarmy waitresses could call out the order.
There always were distinct difference to me between Cracker Barrel, Waffle House and Shoney’s. Cracker Barrel was the place to go if you were traveling. Waffle House was the best bet for late at night or on snow days. Shoney’s was a community meeting place where you would your friends and neighbors.
I noticed some Shoney’s locations started to close in the 1990s and 2000s as the brand lost luster. It seemed Denny’s — home of the Grand Slam breakfast — suffered the same fate around the same time.
Luckily for Shoney’s, David Davoudpour bought the company in 2006 and has been on a mission to restore it as the country’s premier family dining destination. His passion has allowed the company to remain at 150 locations in 17 states.
“In the long run, I would like to have 1,000 Shoney’s restaurants,” Davoudpour told The Daily Herald on Friday.
I spoke with Davoudpour after he visited several locations on Free Hot Fudge Cake Day. He originated the concept for the first week in December as a thank you to customers and as a way to say Merry Christmas.