Hotel employee still smiling after 34 years

Nathan Baker • Oct 17, 2019 at 9:54 PM

If you’ve visited Johnson City’s largest hotel in the last 34 years, you’ve probably seen Charlotte Sims and her smile.

Sims was hired on to the Sheraton Plaza’s restaurant staff in 1985, shortly before the hotel opened in October.

Boasting more than 200 rooms and built at a cost of $10 million, the hotel was and is the city’s largest hotel. Its opening was an important step in Johnson City’s development in North Johnson City and along I-181 (now I-26), which was designated an interstate highway the same year the hotel debuted. In 1995, a change in ownership came with a rebranding to Holiday Inn.

After she was laid off from her previous job at ITT North Electric, Sims said she was looking for a change. She applied for a job at the large hotel because of the excitement it was generating in the community.

At 42, she was worried her age might be a hindrance when she showed up for the first round of interviews and saw the young candidates with whom she was competing for the open serving positions.

“When I went to interview, there were all these young guys and young girls, and here I was like a grandmother,” she said. “It was different.”

She told the interviewer about her friendly, outgoing personality and her love of people, she said. It got her the job.

When the service staff members came to their first day of work, the hotel’s restaurant space was still a concrete shell. Instead of training for their wait staff jobs, they were put to work scrubbing wallpaper glue off the walls in a banquet room, she recalled. The first meal they served was to the construction workers who built the hotel.

“It was rough,” she said. “It was the first meal to go out of the kitchen, with all the big appetites. But we had fun.”

As one of the few restaurants in Johnson City, Sims said the dining room was always full in the early days. The hotel eatery’s Sunday brunch was especially popular with the church crowd.

Established just a few years after Johnson City allowed liquor by the drink in 1980, the hotel’s bar, 101 West, was usually standing room only, too.

Sims said a typical workday was arriving at 5:30 a.m. before breakfast service at 6. She left after the lunch rush at 2 p.m., and most days changed into her banquet server’s uniform to come back and wait for events.

When a new general manager, Jim Sawyer, came on board, he instituted an Employee of the Month program. Sims won the first award.

She and the other staff grew close, a family forged by the stress of the restaurant’s demanding business. She said a lot of them, mostly younger than her, call her mom.

General Manager Patricia Kilgore, who took the helm at the hotel in 2016, said Sims is a legend.

“Not many people stay in a job two years these days, with Miss Charlotte, 34 years, that’s a long time,” she Kilgore said. “She’s the face of hospitality. There’s not a child who leaves the lobby without Miss Charlotte going over to them to say hi.”

Sims said the key to her longevity in the position was loving the work.

“You get attached to the people who come in,” she said. “I enjoy meeting them and talking to them.”

Through the years, she met a lot of friends. One guest from out of town gave her the keys to his condo in Johnson City and asked her to check in on the place from time to time while he was away.

Working in one of the few places to stay in town, she’s also met a few celebrities and politicians.

She has a photo of herself with Vice President Dan Quayle, who passed through Johnson City on the campaign trail in 1988, and she met many of the national bands who performed at Freedom Hall Civic Center.

NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace would ask for her by name when he stayed at the hotel when races came to Bristol Motor Speedway, and he flew her to one race in his private helicopter and then back. Apparently, the driver liked his omelettes flat.

Now, Sims is a greeter in the hotel’s lobby and a hostess in the restaurant. After decades, she has a tough time carrying trays of food up and down the restaurant’s stairs.

For her, the job at the hotel keeps her busy, especially after her husband’s death a few years ago.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s just in my spirits to do it. For me, it’s very rewarding.”

If you stop into the Holiday Inn on a weekday morning, say hello to Sims. You won’t get away without a smile.