Sweetums and I finally got to see a Pal’s drive-through restaurant when we were on our way to the mountains recently. We stopped in Kingsport, Tenn., specifically to see the giant hot dog, fried and cola atop their building. We didn’t get to eat there but it was as adorable as we thought it would be. Following is an excerpt from my book “Forgotten Tales of Tennessee” about Pal’s history.
Driving through northeastern Tennessee, drivers are likely to suddenly slow their cars to gawk at the giant food along the highway.
The giant hot dog, hamburger, drink and “Frenchie” fries set atop a small building signal motorists that they have arrived at one of Tennessee’s most unique creations, a Pal’s Sudden Service drive-through restaurant.
Pal’s was the brainstorm of Fred “Pal” Barger, who in 1952 while in the Air Force saw a quick-service restaurant in Austin, Texas. He thought he would like to open a similar restaurant.
In 1953, Barger received an honorable discharge from the Air Force. He received a degree in business in 1955 from East Tennessee State University and ran a small restaurant in Marion, Virginia, for a year, saving money for his own restaurant.
In 1955, Barger attended a restaurant convention in Chicago, where he met Ray Kroc and observed how the equipment would work at Kroc’s restaurant, McDonald’s.
The first Pal’s Sudden Service opened in 1956 in Kingsport, Tennessee. It had a red-and-white exterior with a large neon sign advertising “Burgers, Shakes, 19 Cents.” It sold mainly sauceburgers and Frenchie fries, which are specially seasoned fries. That first store is still open with the same design on Revere Street.
Barger decided on a clever marketing scheme when he built the second Pal’s on Lynn Garden Drive in Kingsport. In 1962, he purchased a 20-foot-tall Muffler Man holding a burger and installed it on the restaurant’s roof. Fiberglass Muffler Men, most of which were made by International Fiberglass in Venice, California, were used to market a variety of items and often held mufflers, tires or car parts outside auto stores.
Pal’s restaurants were a hit. In 1984, Pal was discussing plans for a drive-through only restaurant with artists Karen and Tony Barone. They sketched a building with a tiered front. On each “step” would be a giant food item — a burger, then a hot dog, then a drink and an order of Pal’s specialty, Frenchie fries. The special facility was built by architect Tony Moore.
Barger continued to expand his empire. The chain now includes 22 restaurants in northeastern Tennessee and southern Virginia, 18 of which have giant food on the buildings. Pal’s No. 1 and No. 2 retain their original architecture, while a Pal’s in Greeneville is located in a strip mall, and another is located inside Johnson City Mall.
In 2001, Pal’s was presented the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award by President George Bush in Washington, D.C., becoming the only restaurant company to receive the award.