Clarence's: Erwin drive-in celebrates 'a great 50 years'

Sue Guinn Legg • Sep 20, 2019 at 11:30 PM

ERWIN — It was 50 years ago Friday that Clarence Tapp bought the former Engle’s Drive-in in Unicoi and set off what has become a family legacy of good food and good business.

To celebrate the golden anniversary of their iconic Clarence’s Drive-in, owners Teresa and Jerry Collins, their son J.B. and the whole Clarence’s crew cut a ribbon on the restaurant’s new Erwin location Friday afternoon, treated their customers to platters of cookies and candies, gave away a 50-inch TV and looked back on what Teresa said has been a great 50 years.

Asked for the secret to their longevity, she said, “We serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. We’re open seven days a week. And we have about anything people want.”

“From biscuits and gravy, hotdogs and hamburgers, the Impossible (vegan) Burger, we’ve had it for two years, to things for people who are more gluten-free. We try to keep it simple and we try to keep it where people can afford it.”

What it all adds up to for Clarence’s:

• More than 100,000 eggs a year.

• An average of 17 gallons of gravy every weekday

• An average of 30 gallons of gravy on weekend days

• A record 36 gallons of gravy in a single day.

• And more than 600 gallons of Coke product fountain syrup since the May 1 opening of the drive-in’s new Erwin location.

“We had the fire and we were able to get back up and running,” Teresa said of the November 2017 blaze that reduced Clarence’s original Unicoi location to rubble.

With the help of friends, neighbors, customers and even some people who were formerly strangers, the Collinses managed to reopen at a nearby Unicoi location within a few weeks, saving their steady stream of business and the jobs of close to a dozen employees.

And after more than a year of waiting for fire inspectors and insurance companies to clear their way, they bought a former Wendy’s restaurant building with a large parking lot and close interstate access a few miles down the highway from their first building.

“It’s bittersweet. But this building came along right at the right time to come out of something horrible,” Teresa said. “It’s been really good for us. We’re busier. The parking helps. The location helps, being right off the interstate. Erwin has been good for us. We were able to stay in Unicoi County, which is what we wanted.

“We were able to fix it up a little bit different. We have a lot of good customers in Erwin and in the county and everybody seems to like it. The customers have been great. We’re excited.”

“Fifty years ago today was the day Clarence bought Engle’s Drive-in. He isn’t with us any more, but he’s my uncle so it’s all in the family. It’s been a great 50 years. And we wanted to celebrate.”