The local restaurateur says Jonesborough is more of a 'fast food town,' leading to the close of his business. (Nathan Baker/Johnson City Press)
After two years in a former Jonesborough fuel station, the owner of The Parson’s Son BBQ is packing up his pork and heading south.
“Friday is our last day. Kiss our perfect butts goodbye,” the sign out front read Wednesday to motorists passing by on busy 11E, traffic that restaurateur Tom Harwell said once held promise for him and his wife.
“We thought it was business traffic out there, but it’s not, it’s commuter traffic,” Harwell said from the dining room he converted two years ago from a vehicle service bay. “Most people are headed to Johnson City or Greeneville; only a small percentage are actually buyers.”
Since opening in August 2012 in the lot opposite the Washington County Justice Center — and time before that on Old State Route 34 as the Parson’s Son Restaurant — Harwell said the business wasn’t catching on the way he’d hoped, partially because Jonesborough was what he called a “fast food town.”
He said residents are more likely to hit the drive through at the Burger King next door, which had a lengthy line at 11 a.m. Wednesday, a stark contrast to The Parson’s Son’s empty parking lot.
“If the they do go out to eat, chances are they’re going to drive to Johnson City, because ‘they have better places to eat,’” Harwell said, making quotation marks with this fingers when saying the end phrase. “You can’t continue to do that and have the better places stay here. The people who own restaurants here are hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people trying to bring something to the town they love. They deserve better.”
He’d hoped to build a successful business around the food people kept telling him was good, then open a second location, then a third.
The catering business was healthy — Koyo Corp., CSX Railroad and the Washington County School System provided regular jobs — but dine-in customers were sparse. Loyal, but sparse.
“We reached a point six months ago where we felt we’d reached our peak here, we didn’t feel like we could improve business enough to reach our long-term goals,” Harwell said.
At the end of the week, the Parson’s Son is closed to Jonesborough customers.
Harwell said he and his wife plan to move the name and the equipment 600 miles south to Ft. Walton Beach in Florida’s panhandle.
A 1,600-square-foot dining room near the entrance to a couple of military installments is ready for him to set up shop in late August, he hopes.
“We opened up here in five weeks, and that was in a building without a kitchen,” Harwell said. “Down there we’ve got a full kitchen and a walk-in cooler.”
Despite the way his comments about Jonesborough could be perceived, Harwell said they’re simply observations of the residents’ nature, and he doesn’t harbor any ill will.
“I’m not bitter, sometimes things work out to be stepping stones for something else, and that’s what I’m considering this to be,” he said with a shrug. “We didn’t lose anything, we did not fail, we just always wanted to be able to open multiple sites, and we’re not going to be able to do that with the traffic we get here.
“Without our experiences here in Jonesborough, I don’t think we would be able to do what we’re planning to do in Ft. Walton Beach.”
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