A little more than a year after fire destroyed one of the region’s most popular eateries, Clarence’s owners Teresa and Jerry Collins recently closed on their purchase of the drive-in’s new location.
About three miles down the highway from Clarence’s former Unicoi Drive location and just off Exit 36 of Interstate 26, Teresa said the former Wendy’s restaurant on Erwin’s North Main Avenue came with several plusses for the drive-in’s future.
The building is larger than most Wendy’s and will seat 90 diners — about the same as the former La Meza restaurant, were Clarence’s has been doing business since a few weeks after the fire.
And it sits on a 1.3-acre lot that includes a huge parking lot and a grassy area at the back of the building where the Collins have plans for benches, picnic tables and a walk-up window for ice cream orders, similar to the original Clarence’s Drive-in that was operated by Teresa’s uncle, Clarence Tapp, starting in 1969.
And inside, there is room for the return of the long counter with high stools that Teresa said was the only seating Clarence’s had when she first went to work there.
“It will take us a couple of months,” she said. “It needs a new roof. We’ve got some remodeling to do and we’re anxious to get started.
“We’ve got a lot on our to-do list. But we’ve got plenty of time. The people we lease from have been so good to us. It’s a little bittersweet to be leaving after being in Unicoi so long. But we’re still in Unicoi County and it’s just two and half miles from where we are.
“We wanted to stay but we would have had to downsize to have enough parking at the old place. And Erwin has already been good to us on a couple of things we needed.
“We’re pretty excited. It took longer than we thought it would. But we got a good building with plenty of parking.”
With the fire rubble now cleared away and the keys to the new building in hand, Teresa said the drive-in’s original site will soon go up for sale.
A couple of people have already expressed some interest in the property and Teresa’s hope is that another business will fill the old space.