Matthew Kirkland and Tom Carr at Red Pig. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)
Tom Carr, the owner of Johnson City’s Red Pig Bar-B-Q and Deli, is a man many will remember for his handshakes and kind heart.
Carr, a longtime Johnson City business owner, died Tuesday. He was 81.
For more than 30 years, Carr greeted customers at the Red Pig with a handshake, never letting their glasses of iced tea go empty.
It was the special attention to his customers that had them coming back week after week.
“He got into the restaurant business without knowing anything about it, and I think one of the reasons he was successful was he figured out the things he was good at in the business and that was shaking hands and pouring tea. He left the restaurant part of the business up to the people who understood food and people who understood the management of the back office of the restaurant,” said one of Carr’s two sons, Hank.
While Carr was most well-known for running the Red Pig — which he purchased from Charlie Wilson in 1968 — the Johnson City entrepreneur ran several other successful businesses after his early career as a home builder. He also owned and operated the Walnut Street Recreation Center and the Tu-La-Fe Night Club — both of which were popular “hang-out” spots during their heyday.
The Red Pig closed for a decade before being reopened by Carr at its current location, 2201 Ferguson Drive near Kroger, in 1992.
Carr sold the business at the beginning of the year, but still came in and mingled with customers seven days a week.
Making his customers feel welcome was the secret to Carr’s success, according to his other son, Gib.
“It was just important to him that he could look them in the eye, shake their hand and say hello,” he said.
Knowing his customers’ names was such an important part of his business that Carr carried around a 100-plus page notebook in his pocket where he kept a listing of all the people who frequented the Red Pig.
“The pages were tattered and torn and he might’ve filed your name under ‘L’ for lawyer or ‘K’ for Kroger and he’d remember people in different ways,” Gib said.
Throughout his ownership of the Red Pig, Carr served at least three generations of Johnson Citians, always taking delight in serving kids, who knew him as the “Tootsie Roll Man.”
“He would give these little kids a handful of Tootsie Rolls when they came in the door and obviously the moms are in shock as their kid couldn’t care less about eating their lunch. Now, all they wanted to do was eat their Tootsie Rolls,” Hank said.
In addition to taking special care of his customers, Carr was also well-known for making sure his employees had everything they needed.
“He always made sure you had enough hours and was always very flexible. He had an extra bit of care for the people that were there,” said Ron Williams, who first met Carr in 1974 when he landed a job at the Red Pig.
Williams continued to work for Carr off and on for about three years, but the two remained friends until Carr’s death.
“We stayed in touch off and on over the years and he was a mentor. I was always impressed with him. He’s an iconic personality of Johnson City,” Williams said.
Williams said he always respected the way Carr ran his business.
“You went to the Red Pig because Tom Carr was there and you wanted to see him and get to chat with him for a minute, at least that’s why I always went,” he said.
Bob Plummer, associate vice president of the East Tennessee State University alumni office, said Carr was a staunch supporter of ETSU, especially ETSU athletics.
“The scope that Tom, between his businesses and his role in the community, has been one that’s left an indelible mark on ETSU people,” Plummer said. “He was one of those guys that was always a Buccaneer.”
Assistant News Editor Rex Barber contributed to this report.