KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — For nearly 70 years biscuits and gravy as well as other country-style staples, have been laid in front of hungry patrons sitting at the lunch counter and booths of Rankin Restaurant.
That all changed Thrusday, Feb. 24 when owners Donna and Perry Kennedy close the doors to the iconic diner for the last time.
Donna, who has been making the biscuits since before the couple bought the restaurant in 2005 from the original owners Dot and Gene Rankin, said the tears among employees and guests have flowed since they made the decision to sell the restaurant.
“They’re not just customers, they’re like family,” she said. “I can’t put it into words.”
The new owner originally wanted to keep the restaurant going but staffing issues made it impossible. Donna and Perry tried to train employees so as to make a seamless transition, but the early morning hours and hard work required to keep the restaurant going were too much.
“We didn’t want to sell it but when you can’t find anyone to work,” Perry said. “We gave up hope (of finding people).”
The Kennedys have been working long hours for 17 years as owners with only two weeks off each year, one in the summer and the week of Christmas. The Kennedys get to the restaurant around 3:30 a.m. each morning, open around 6 a.m. and close around 2 p.m. five days a week until recently when staffing issues forced them to close Saturdays. Perry said the change allowed him and Donna to cut their hours from 60 to 54 as a result. At one point the couple was working 80 hours a week.
“I’m not spring chicken anymore,” he said.
While the Kennedys could have sold the naming rights to the restaurant with the sale of the building, they said it would be a disservice to operate the restaurant in any way other than how it began.
“We don’t do anything from a mix,” Donna said. “We do biscuits from scratch and gravy in a cast-iron skillet.”
The news of the closing prompted many to return and share their memories of the diner this past week. Perry said people come back into town from as far away as Ohio and South Carolina to eat at the restaurant just as they had when they were young.
The lunch counter and stools are the same ones that were there in 1953. Only the stools’ upholstery has changed.
“We had a customer come in and say … ‘we would sit here with my grandparents and they would order me a cheeseburger,'” Donna said.
While many are taking it hard, Donna said they’re glad to go “out on a good note” and that they meant so much to the community.
As to their future, Donna said she is taking a position to teach culinary arts at Campbell County High School and Perry said he is going to focus on his woodworking hobby and his “honey-do” list.
The last day for the quaint diner sitting just off North Central Street at the corner of East Quincy Avenue was originally Friday, but due to staffing issues, the owners didn’t have the workers to remain open.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to show the new closing date for the restaurant.