J’s Corner is not just about the food… Small town mom and pop feel with personality keeps eatery rolling right along
BY IVAN SANDERS
So, your belly is starting to growl meaning its time to look for something to fill it with. You are tired of eating in places where you feel more like a number than someone looking for a great meal while being treated like with respect for dining there.
While sometimes it feels like there aren’t too many more places like that in existence, apparently you are due a trip to the little diner on the corner at 102 South Lynn Avenue in Elizabethton directly across from Felty-Roland Florist on one side and Big John’s Closeout on the other.
J’s Corner was established in 2008 by now Register of Deeds Jarrod Ellis and the tradition of friendly service, good food, and taking in the sights and feel of what has made J’s Corner the quaint eatery it is today.
When Ellis was elected to his current position – Jon Wilcox, James Weir, and Travis Bowers who had come on board to help Ellis decided to go into business themselves as the operators at J’s Corner.
“We pretty much keep our nose to the grindstone and we have five other employees right now as part-time help,” said Wilcox between a busy rush recently.
“We actually hired more people after this crazy (COVID-19) started to happen. If you had told me a couple of years ago there was going to be a pandemic and laid it out for me, I would have told you quite the opposite.”
With many businesses forced to close their doors due to the economic impact of the recent pandemic, J’s Corner has been able to remain stable and even was able to hire some people to work part-time.
“Because we have good customers and stay so busy we had to hire people,” Wilcox said. “We have just been trying to keep on keeping on. One of the things that I have missed the most when all this started was going and getting a cup of coffee at the bookstore and that got taken away from me for a while and still not quite normal yet.
“One of the things that we talked about when this first happened was that we weren’t going to adjust our hours or anything like that.
“People want their normalcy,” Wilcox continued. “We have been going. James, Travis, and I have been doing this since Jarrod left after getting elected to office and we do all that we know to do and that is to work and keep things as normal as we could.”
Many people can remember the very first business that was established in the location where J’s Corner currently operates. It is a story that the team loves to share with people when presented with the opportunity.
“Every time someone asks that we tell them that this was one of the very first Dairy Queens ever. We found an old Dairy Queen advertisement with Charlie Brown on it up in the attic,” commented Wilcox.
“There have been a lot of people ask. If you pick up one of those Carter County History magazines there are pictures in there with the guys with the little diner caps on. For years it was a local business.”
Wilcox believes the fact that the Dairy Queen was such a success in the earlier years that people still remember the business and have kept coming back throughout the years to enjoy a good burger, some smoked wings, or any of the other offerings that customers have the opportunity to take advantage of in present day.
“People have got a lot of memories wrapped up in the building and they have been coming here and eating for years,” said Wilcox. “It’s also a spot where Jarrod took a chance.
“Jarrod had been doing some stuff around the area for a while and people knew him and knew his dad and he took a chance and it’s a good story because in 2008 that’s when he opened the thing up and took a chance and it worked out good for him.”
With the many memories of sitting down with a group of friends or maybe one’s family at the eatery, Wilcox said that none of that has transpired over the years without the hard work and elbow grease put into making sure that J’s Corner could be in the place it is today.
“There is a lot of history wrapped around the building and a lot of people that have eaten here over the years so it’s a good reminder that hard work pays off,” added Wilcox.
“People like to eat here. It’s a cool little eclectic spot and people like the license tags and I feel like when people are looking for a more personal experience they come down here. We know like 80 percent or more of people by name.
“If I didn’t work here and I was in this town, I would be like go to J’s because they are cool,” Wilcox continued. “The mom and pop shops are where you get that experience and those are also the places where they know you by name. A lot of times people come in here and they don’t even have to tell you their order and that’s pretty cool.”
That’s one thing that Wilcox believes is missing in today’s businesses is the personal touch that can be given when customers come in to do business. It is possibly a deciding factor whether a business will succeed or fail within the first couple of years.
There is a place for mom and pop business in every community and Wilcox believes that is why people keep returning to J’s Corner.
“I do know that in small-town America that is a pretty cool niche to have. When I go out of town on vacation to the places we normally go to, those mom and pop places we find, those are usually the ones that stick with you,” Wilcox stated.
“It’s not corporate America. It’s neighbors and people who have been in the community for years and that’s where you get your best food and that’s also where you get your friendliest service. You will get things that you won’t find on the cookie-cutter menu at larger places.
“These are the places that you love to eat at and that’s one of the reasons that I love working here is that.”
Like most businesses, Wilcox and his partners utilize social media where they try to share their business. However, Wilcox admits that getting business is not all there is to it.
“It really is because on social media we even try to talk to people on there and try to get more business that way and it’s not just about getting business but it’s also about being a decent person,” said Wilcox. “That is a good way to do business.
“You see all the time about people going to Jiggy Ray’s on a certain night or they talk about other places downtown and mostly all that is all mom and pop kind of stuff and that’s really cool. I enjoy that.”
Wilcox was asked in his opinion what was the top three items that are heavily requested on a daily basis by old and new customers alike.
“Our pulled pork people really like. We try to do it differently – you can’t do the same thing as everyone else. People really like our barbecue and it has really taken off,” said Wilcox.
“People also like our burgers. It seems like we always get the best burger in the area in the Best of Best awards and that’s really nice.
“After that, there is a hodge-podge of different things,” Wilcox continued. “People really like our wings and Philly’s. Somedays we will sell tons of wings and if you asked me that day I would say ‘Yeah it’s wings’ and then you come the next day I might tell you that we sold so many Philly’s it was Philly’s.
“It’s just different every day. It’s probably a tie with our wings and Philly’s.”
When the first time visitor walks into J’s Corner, the smell of the awesome food cooking will be the first thing noticed but not too far behind would be all the license plates that don the walls on the inside.
Wilcox was asked about the unique appeal the tags have and shared how the tags began as well as a couple of stories that were brought about from the tags.
“Years ago, Jarrod came in and put up like 10 license plates like about 10 years ago,” Wilcox said with a chuckle. “I looked at it and I was like why is he only putting up 10 plates. And then people started to bring them in. They would be like passing through Elizabethton and they would like hey I have three plates in the trunk of the car. Come pick out one or two.
“We would get them in the mail or they would just be dropping them off. Our staff has been a couple of places like Las Vegas and we have brought in a few.
“My parents who are both gone now, and I didn’t think about it actually until three weeks ago but my mom and dad went up north and brought back a tag that says ‘Lobstah’ on it from Maine,” Wilcox continued. “I look at it now and didn’t pay much attention to it until after they were gone but speaking of that it’s sentimental stuff.
“There is a tag up there – there was a guy in line a few years ago and he was looking at the tags and he clutched his chest and gasped and I thought he was having a stroke or something,
“I asked him if he was all right and he asked for a marker and cried. He recognized his father’s tag in there that his dad had brought in here, it’s a Purple Heart tag, and he got a marker and was crying and wrote his dad’s name on it in there,” Wilcox said.
“Some people have noticed a family member’s tag. It all started with Jarrod bringing in just 10. We had a lot more but a wind storm a couple of Aprils ago blew the fence down out back and I think when Jarrod cleaned it up he may still have them. We do have a small stack back there that we might start doing the ceiling with.”
Not only has the business thrived on in-house and carry-out business, but one of the strong points of their success has been J’s Corner catering business.
“We have always had a really strong catering business – weddings, parties, get-togethers, showers, corporate events. We do pick-up catering, delivery catering, on-site serve catering which has slowed down a little but the pick-up catering has picked up,” Wilcox noted.
“What we are going through with the pandemic that plays into that somewhere. We do have a few weddings coming up and we do what we can to make sure that we are going to be safe and all that.
“Pick-up catering is where people can come in and pick up pans of wings and barbecue and items like that straight in here,” continued Wilcox. “We also have a special catering menu with things like ribs, wings, catering salads, our pulled pork – we have a few things on that and we have always been easy to get along with.”
The growth of the catering business has stemmed from the fact as a small mom and pop eatery, J’s Corner can change things up to meet the specific needs of their customers.
“That’s another thing about being a mom and pop shop is that we can do anything. We have always worked with people. We had someone call last week asking about roast beef and we were like we really don’t do that but we can smoke a roast beef for you,” stated Wilcox.
“That is one thing that we have always had and that is a strong catering business. Jarrod is the one that built that up. He stayed busy with catering and that is one of the reasons why he hired the guys that are running the place now is he brought us in to free him up to cater whenever he needed to.
“For years, we have done big catering with TCAT in Elizabethton and word of mouth spread from things like that,” Wilcox commented. “For years we have done the Marines and Jarrod built that up. He got a lot of that started and we have kept that going and learned more of the ropes on that aspect of the business. We love catering.
“The better we get along through this pandemic I think the catering will pick up. Our in house business, our to-go business, and our pick up catering business – we haven’t dropped off at all and have picked up in other areas and I would have never anticipated that. We want to get back into heavy catering and hopefully, we can hire five more people.”
Overall, Wilcox circled back around to the beginning and that was to bragging on the customers that have continued their strong support of their small enterprise.
“Our customers are the lifeblood of what we are doing and the way we are doing things here is because that is the way the customers like it. They come in and we try to call them by name and we try to learn people,” Wilcox said with pride.
“Even the folks who are passing through one time during the summer, sometimes we will remember them from the summer before. That happened a couple of weeks ago. I had a guy come in who was actually with a youth group and I forget where he is from but he came in and I was like hey you came in about this time last year.
“We try to remember faces and give that small-town friendly feel,” Wilcox commented. “We try to call everybody buddy or pal – we sugar talk everybody.
“I think that is what the drawing point of this is. We are the place where you can come in and pull up a barstool and order your food and we will come over and make some small talk with you, give you good directions on where you are going, tell you what else is good in town because we love to talk about other businesses.
“We do that a lot on Facebook and we try to listen to our customers on our menu,” said Wilcox. “Everything that is on that menu is there because of customer feedback.
“From the menu to the drinks that we keep in the cooler like Cheerwine. People love Cheerwine and we keep ordering it. Everything that we have ever done is based on feedback from our customers. We try to take a lot of pictures and put on Facebook to see what the feedback is.”
Without proper feedback, it’s hard to stay in business for so long. Wilcox said that is one of the reason’s why living in a community like Elizabethton is so important.
“That’s one good thing about Elizabethton is that people will tell you that they either like it or not,” said Wilcox. “It’s about customers, feedback from customers, and making them happy when they come in through the door and happy when they are leaving.”
Anyone entering the business can expect to be greeted by Wilcox, Weir, or Bowers along with employees Nathan Kyte, Chasity Davis, Kennedy Morelock, or Alan Huskins.