I get a lot of advice on writing columns. Some people tell me to write funnier. Others say, “Be more serious. Solve the world’s problems.”
Family members say, “Write more about your Southern roots.” Friends say, “You should be like those columnists who make tacky jokes about Biden, Trump, Pelosi, and Pence.”
Sorry folks, but I haven’t become America’s slowest rising columnist by sharing casserole recipes or slinging juvenile insults. Not me. I write about things that matter. Like the gradual disappearance of Shoney’s Big Boy restaurants. At one time, there were 1800 of them. Now, there are only 163, and none near me.
A fine Alabama columnist named Bill King wrote about this troubling issue recently, and it reminded me of my love for Shoney’s.
Last December, I enjoyed one of the greatest days of my life. I had been invited to promote my book by speaking to the Kiwanis Club in Athens, Tennessee, about an hour from my home. There’s nothing I enjoy doing more than telling my stories and making new friends, so I was already in a good mood en route to Athens.
As I entered the city, I looked to my left, and it was if I had spotted a cool stream on the Sahara desert. It was a sight I had not laid eyes on in years: a Shoney’s restaurant.
Even better, it was OPEN. Cars were parked outside, and people were coming and going. I resisted the temptation to call the Kiwanians and ask for a delay or a postponement. I had made a commitment.
So I dutifully met my obligation as cheerfully as I could. I showed pictures, told stories, shook hands, and sold copies of my book. I also enjoyed a fine lunch of pasta and salad, because I was hungry. This took great willpower, because I love Shoney’s cheeseburgers, and they were in my zip code.
But I had to draw the line somewhere. Despite an array of inviting cookies and cakes, I declined dessert. There was a slice of Hot Fudge Cake awaiting me, just a few miles away. (Yes, they have strawberry pie too, but it’s a distant second in my Dessert Derby.)
This obsession goes back a few decades. In my early career, my radio friends and I would cap off our day’s work with a trip to Shoney’s in downtown Chattanooga. I fondly remember the tacky décor, the sticky floor, the salad bar sneeze guard, and even the sassy waitresses.
I was mostly a burger guy, but I would occasionally tease my palate with a Slim Jim sandwich, or if I had just gotten paid, a plate of baked spaghetti. But the grand finale was always the Hot Fudge Cake, the most perfect dessert known to man. Everything was just right. From the bottom: moist chocolate cake, topped by a square of vanilla ice cream, crowned by even more cake, hot fudge sauce like no other, a dollop of Cool Whip, and a cherry on top.
Back then, at the age of 19, I could do this several times a week, and never gain a pound. If I maintained this diet today, I would be a Sumo wrestler.
As I settled in at the Athens Shoney’s, just for dessert, I realized I was not alone. My fellow Hot Fudge Cake connoisseurs gave me a knowing nod.
Ever since then, I have awaited another invitation from Athens. Any excuse will do. I’ll come speak to farm animals, if that Shoney’s is along my route.
So why are Shoney’s restaurants now as rare as a telephone booth or a Radio Shack? Times change, and I suppose folks found trendier alternatives.
Just recently, I tried out a new, upscale restaurant that had remodeled an old Shoney’s. When I entered, nothing looked the same, and I was told to sit anywhere. The young man said, “We are full service.”
The menu was filled with fancy, expensive entrees. After waiting 10 minutes and observing the “host” chatting with a coworker, totally ignoring me, I walked out.
Obviously, my expectations were too high. All I really wanted was a sassy waitress, and the most delicious cake ever, with a cherry on top.