The Dixie Drive-In Restaurant Brought Curb Service to Johnson City
In the mid 1960s, I became acquainted with George and Mary Parker, owners of the Dixie Drive-In Restaurant at 425 E. Main and occasional patrons of Frick’s Music Mart, where I had a part-time job. This restaurant was always one of my favorites, mainly because of their hamburgers with that special tasting sauce.
Top: The Dixie in the 1920s, Bottom: The restaurant in the 1950s
Jean Lewis, former writer for the Press-Chronicle, interviewed the couple just prior to their closing the restaurant in 1972 and gleaned 42 years of mouthwatering memories from them. The Parkers opened the popular eatery on Sept. 30, 1930 and are credited with pioneering curb service in Johnson City. This amenity allowed folks the luxury of eating inside their vehicles.
The husband and wife team acquired the novel idea after visiting a relative in Washington, DC, where curb service restaurants were already established and doing a flourishing business. After stopping at several drive-ins, they liked what they saw and decided to offer the same service in Johnson City. This was a gutsy venture considering the fact that the country was in the midst of a depression.
Mr. Parker related how the two of them pursued the dicey concept equipped with a bold dream, $85 cash, a bank loan, some scrap lumber and the assistance of some teenage boys. That initial effort produced a 12 x 20 foot structure that bore the name Dixie Barbecue.
According to Mrs. Parker: “We grossed $6 on our first day of business. We didn’t advertise or anything; people just came in. It happened that the Appalachian Tri-State Fair was in operation that day, located where the Municipal Building now sits.”
The first year would prove to be a difficult one, causing the entrepreneurs to wonder if they had done the right thing: “One day,” said Mrs. Parker, “it was so bad and snowy with no customers in sight that we decided to just close down and give up. About that time, a man came in and gave us six takeout orders. From that time on, we never entertained the thought of quitting.” The couple confessed to working seven days a week while caring for two nephews.
The Parkers were quite proud that so many youngsters, principally boys, worked there over the years: “Most of those who worked here as curb hops went on to make outstanding businessmen. We couldn’t begin to name them all, but there are those who became lawyers, architects, ministers and realtors.” The building literally expanded eight and ten feet at a time as the business grew in popularity, all the while maintaining a comfortable and affordable atmosphere conducive to family dining.
The Parkers cite one memorable event from May 1944 when three homesick GIs stationed in England painted a sign on a ballpark fence using foot-high letters and sent the Parkers a picture of it. It read: “Eat at Dixie Bar-B-Q – Home of Delicious Hamburgers, Johnson City.” The photo identified two of the three soldiers as Gale Cox and Cone Dixon, both former curb hops at the Dixie. The restaurant owners prominently displayed it in the foyer of their business for several years. The valued picture abruptly vanished one day after five busloads of students from Kingsport descended on the restaurant following a football game with their archrival, Science Hill High School. Fortunately, the picture was later recovered.
Mrs. Parker concluded the 1972 interview by saying: “It breaks our hearts to leave the business world of Johnson City, but it’s time we thought of our health and the future.”