End of an era: Last Country Place closes (with video)

End of an era: Last Country Place closes (with video)

April 6th, 2013 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Mildred Mitchell, an employee at The Country Place for 23 years, checks on a table of veterinarians and interns from the Banfield Pet Hospital as they enjoy their lunch. The Country Place, which is a family owned business located at 7316 Shallowford road, will be closing its doors later this month after over 30 years of serving the community.

Photo by Jay Bailey /Times Free Press.

Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

On April 21, the last Country Place restaurant will shut down. Thinking about it brings owner Mike Trussell to tears.

"I'm sorry," Trussell says, running a rough hand across his face.

Most days he's the strong one who makes the tough decisions. The choice to close the business that made him a household name in Chattanooga is one of his toughest yet.

Working at Country Place, the big family restaurant his father founded 37 years ago, is virtually all he has ever known. Trussell would have worked there forever if he could.

"Showing up here was like coming home," he said on Wednesday.

Hiren Desai, CEO of 3H Hotels, bought the 1.4 acres of prime Shallowford Road real estate for $1.65 million. The single-story Country Place building is dwarfed by the nearby Embassy Suites going up across the street, and sits in the shadow of Holiday Inn next door.

"Right now there is no agreement with any restaurant, hotel or mixed use development," Desai said.

The sale wasn't a huge windfall for the Trussell family. They'll look for new work, and they're hoping to maintain their profitable catering business. They're working to place their employees with other restaurants. So far they've found jobs for eight of 15 workers.

"I've been toying with the idea of trying to find a smaller location for about three months now, but we're still trying to figure out what the future is going to hold," said Mike Trussell.

In some ways, the restaurant was his home. He ate with his family at a booth in the corner between the lunch and dinner rush. His son grew up there. He literally built the building with his bare hands.

Trussell knew every customer. Some of them ate at Country Place twice a day, seven days per week. Trussell noticed when they missed a day, and would say something about it. That made them feel special. Every day felt like a family reunion. Now the family's breaking up.

Sick or tired, rain or shine, Country Place served breakfast lunch and dinner year-round, 16 hours per day. They only closed on Christmas. The Trussells rarely took vacations.

But cancer has a way of slowing people down. It's not terminal, but non-Hodgkin lymphoma can still take a toll on a man's body. After he found out about the cancer six years ago, Trussell began thinking about a way out of the restaurant business, which requires constant attention and immense stores of energy to keep afloat.

"You worry about it, even when you're not here," he said.

Many of the town's civic organizations met at Country Place. The pianos and podiums are quiet these days, though the plaques remain on the wall. The Rotarians will have to eat somewhere else next month.

Jeremy Trussell, the family's third-generation in the restaurant business, isn't ready to let go either. His earliest memories are here. Other restaurant owners have extended offers to him, but he has mixed feelings about moving on.

"It wasn't an easy decision," he said. "It's actually harder each day that gets closer to that day."

B.T. Trussell founded the first Country Place restaurant in 1976 on Dayton Boulevard. The family sold that location just before the turn of the 21st century.

The family opened up a location in Dayton in 1980, and sold it in 1985. The family's East Ridge location, which opened up in 1983, was closed in 1988. Country Place also had a location on Highway 58 that the family opened in 1986, but they closed that store in 1989.

The Shallowford Road store -- the last of the family's restaurants -- will close this year.

"We're a dying breed," said Sharon Trussell, Mike's wife. Now she's crying too. "I'm sorry," she said, wiping her face.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6315.