Peggy Cato treasures her Shoney’s Bear clock that says “Whatever it takes” across the bottom. The 26-year employee says it’s that type of attitude that has carried a string of Tri-Cities Shoney’s restaurants into 40 years of success under its current ownership.
James W. “Chub” Young and his wife, Sonja Young-Gorman, purchased five less-than-profitable Shoney’s in 1971 and helped turn them into buzzing hot spots where regulars still come to enjoy popular items like the breakfast buffet and hot fudge cake.
“Sonja said they knew they were going to make it when Chubby could take the cans of green beans out from under the booths that were being used as legs to support them,” Cato said.
The good fortune continued at what was then called Shoney’s Big Boy. located just down the hill from the current restaurant at 2120 N. Roan St., which opened in November 1992. There was a curbside service from its original opening in 1967 until 1973, and eventually the Big Boy was replaced by the Shoney’s Bear mascot, who still makes frequent appearances at the restaurants and other public events. Cato has been Johnson City’s Shoney’s Bear since her second year of employment when management noticed her positive energy and infectious laugh.
“They knew I would be game to do it,” said Cato, who’s even bowled in the big-headed bear suit. “The Shoney’s Bear brings so much joy so quickly.”
It’s rare for a someone in the restaurant business to hang on to a company for 40 years, but James and Sonja came to East Tennessee with a strong determination to put into practice that same message on Cato’s clock.
“The thing they tried to instill in supervisors and managers was to get everybody to learn about work ethic,” she said. “They were really persistent. It was a repetition of flawless training that made everyone want to be that way.”
“Chub” passed away about 10 years ago, but Sonja and son, Kevin Young, are still very much a part of the business, even as it has transitioned into an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, in which the employees own a stake in the company. Now The Youngs are a part of eight ESOP restaurants ranging from Kingsport to Bristol and parts of Virginia. Another longtime employee, Greg Bowser, says this 40-year milestone isn’t typical as owners are more inclined to “sell out and buy out” during the current economic conditions.
Another angle of the Shoney’s success story is its family-oriented atmosphere and variety of foods. Cato says she doesn’t know of many other restaurant where customers can come in for a single piece of toast or a complete buffet.
The close knit, kinship kind of bond has drawn employees together and helped them form close connections with their regular customers.
“You get to work with these people day in and day out,” Bowser said. “It’s not a job, it’s just going to work to see your friends.”
Die-hard customers like Marie Ray are the reason Cato has stuck with Shoney’s for 26 years. Ray visits the restaurant at least four times per week for coffee and sometimes cake. She even worked at Shoney’s for a summer during his college years in the mid-70s.
“The food is good and the employees are great,” she said while sitting in her usual booth.
Cato doesn’t take for granted the special customer-employee relationships she has with people like Ray.
“I didn’t have any family here when I came to Johnson City and all the customers kind of became my family,” she said. “We’ve seen each other through births, deaths and bad marriages.”
The Johnson City Shoney’s continues to add to its list of dedicated employees with at least 20 years of experience. Two of them, Anna Sims and the late Florine “Flo” Baker, have retired after 40 years of service. Bowser and Chuck Garber are in their 32nd year with the popular franchise.
“Anna and Flo put dedication to a whole other level,” Cato said. “Everything was flawless. It was down to a T.”
Cato says she hasn’t missed a day of work in about a decade and is proud to be a part of Shoney’s 40th anniversary. Cato and Bowser recalled a number of adventures while working for the buffet-style establishment, including women being required to wear skirts and hosiery, as well as dealing with challenging customers. Through it all, however, the current staff of 35 will continue to stick by the “whatever it takes” mantra.
“It’s not always easy and I’m sure there’s been times that we’ve not made everybody happy, but we’ve given it a good shot,” Cato said.