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Rising From the Ashes - Clarence's Drive-in reopens

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Dec 5, 2017 at 8:26 AM

Bouncing back from the Nov. 14 fire that burned the town of Unicoi’s longest-serving restaurant to the ground, Clarence's Drive-in is back in business.

Two days ahead of its planned re-opening on Monday, the popular restaurant opened quietly and without notice at 6 a.m. Saturday in the former La Meza Mexican Restaurant building at 3615 Unicoi Drive.

By closing time Sunday, its new dining rooms had been packed for two consecutive days and was set for what turned out to be an extremely busy Monday.

“We didn’t know if we were going to have all of our equipment ready, so we didn’t want to say a lot,” co-owner Teresa Collins said of the reopening Saturday, just two and half weeks after the devastating fire.

“I sent a text to all my employees and we opened. We were packed Saturday night and we were packed Sunday night and today we’ve been very, very busy. And that’s great.

All of that was just people driving by. We had all our signs up. And we had a lot of people coming in asking about us.

“We have a lot of good customers not just from here but from Johnson City, Elizabethton, Kingsport and some form North Carolina. We have some customers who eat here every day. We have some customers who eat here twice a day. And I have to thank them for coming.”

Of the fire, Collins said all that was salvaged were come coins and everything else was destroyed.

“It was an older building but a lot of equipment was new. It’s just tough. It’s a weird feeling when something like that happens. You’re just numb.”

Depending on the season, Collins said Clarence’s employees 20 to 22 workers who count on the money and who played a big role in her and her husband Jerry’s decision to reopen quickly.

“I felt bad for them and I felt band for our regular customers, but mostly for our employees. We had to decide quickly what we were going to do. And we decided our first goal would be to find some place to lease, not only for our income but for our employees’,” she said.

And with that decision, help came from all over, beginning with the owners of the Le Meza building, who postponed their own plans for the building to give the drive-in its lease.

“We had a lot of volunteers come to helped us clean and set up,” Collins said. 

Vendors like Reinhart Food Services, Paramount Linens, ZZ Topps and Coke donated supplies and services they would not let the restaurant pay for. Utility services bent over backward to see that they had what it needed to start over.

And at the courthouse, County Clerk Mitzi Bowman waived the fee for their business license transfer and Register of Deeds Debbie Tittle and County Trustee Paul Berry rolled up their sleeves and came to clean.

For the Clarence’s employees who went through Thanksgiving and into the start of the Christmas shopping season without jobs, Clinchfield Credit Union opened an account for donations and the owners of The Bramble turned last weekend’s Small Business Saturday gathering of Erwin area merchants into a fundraiser that brought in about $4,000 for the workers.

“They were excited to get it. And they were even more excited to get back to work,” Collins said. “We appreciate everyone for everything they have done to help us.”

And for the four groups of firefighters and the sheriff’s department officers who turned out on the night of the fire, Collins called their work to save the neighboring building amazing. And she continues to marvel at their saving the wooden privacy fence around the drive-in property.

Looking forward, Collins said the next goal for the drive-inc is to rebuild on the site were Clarence’s had been in business since 1969. They are waiting now for the state Fire Marshal to sign off on the investigation and the insurance claims process to be completed.

“As soon as we can get clearance, we’re going to build back,” Collins said.

Email Sue Guinn Legg at slegg@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.

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