Fill'er up: Service stations prove to be right fit for successful restaurants in greater Chattanooga area

Fill'er up: Service stations prove to be right fit for successful restaurants in greater Chattanooga area

December 20th, 2013 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment

Owner Dianne Cosper, standing, refills tea glasses for customers Kevin Bass, Joshua Fisher and Chris Saurenmann, from left, as they eat at the Blue Ribbon Cafe in Soddy-Daisy, a business that has operated for 10 years in a remodeled gas station and television repair shop. Their table rests atop an old hydraulic lift in one of the former garage bays.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

The Universal Joint is in a former gas station across from the Hamilton County Courthouse downtown.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

The Blue Ribbon Cafe in Soddy-Daisy is in a building that used to house a Texaco station.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

The Blue Ribbon Cafe is Soddy-Daisy still has the glass bay doors from the building's days as a filling station.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

PLACES TO FILL 'ER UP

Blue Ribbon Cafe

Address: 9705 Dayton Pike, Soddy-Daisy.

Phone: 423-332-5005.

Opened as restaurant: March 2003.

Specialties: Shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes.

BrewHaus

Address: 224 Frazier Ave.

Phone: 423-531-8490.

Opened as restaurant: Sept. 15, 2011.

Specialties: German food with Southern American influence.

The Farmer's Daughter

Address: 1211 Hixson Pike.

Phone: 423-355-5372.

Opened as restaurant: Nov. 1, 2013.

Specialties: Farm-to-table breakfast and lunch items.

The Filling Station

Address: 316 N. Hamilton St., Dalton, Ga.

Phone: 706-279-3355.

Opened as restaurant: April 2004.

Specialties: Southern cooking, fried chicken.

Universal Joint

Address: 301 E. Sixth St.

Phone: 423-468-3725.

Opened as restaurant: Aug. 7, 2013.

Specialties: Hamburgers.

A decade ago, as the layers of paint on the walls of the former service station in Dalton, Ga., were removed, the pages of history flew quickly past.

Appearing then disappearing were the round orange-and-blue Gulf Oil logo, the oval red, white and blue of Amoco with its natural-gas torch, the green and red of Sinclair with its trademark dinosaur, and the red, white and blue of Mobil with its winged horse. All represented eras of operation in the building, which is more than a century old.

"We took off about 40 coats of paint," says Jim Davis, the father of Stephanie Strain, who owns The Filling Station, a service station-turned-restaurant in downtown Dalton. "[The paint] was chemically removed to meet historical criteria."

The Filling Station, which opened in April 2004, is one of several restaurants in the region that occupy space formerly devoted to full-service gas stations. Elsewhere, the Blue Ribbon Cafe in Soddy-Daisy is in a building that used to house Hensley's Texaco station, Universal Joint at Fountain Square in downtown Chattanooga was once a Gulf, BP and Pure dealer, the Farmer's Daughter in Riverview was previously an Exxon station and the BrewHaus on the NorthShore at one time was a Texaco dealer.

Full-service stations, where attendants ran out to pump gas, wash windows and check under the hood and mechanics on site could work on the car, declined rapidly over the second half of the 20th century with the rise of convenience stores and self-serve pumps, the legality of consumers fueling cars and the rising price of gasoline.

Now, according to a November news release by the Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing, convenience stores sell more than 80 percent of the gasoline purchased in the United States.

TRANSFORMATION

Although all five restaurants had to make extensive physical changes to their buildings to convert them to eateries, none had to undertake environmental remediation.

"We had all three EPA letters," says Universal Joint owner Sean Corley. "We were fortunate because that [clean-up] would have been a huge undertaking. Everything was already up to snuff."

Previous Times Free Press stories nevertheless indicate he and his partners spent about $1 million to renovate the building, including outfitting the outdoor patio with seating for 50.

Since the Filling Station is in a Dalton historical district, with the exception of enclosing the pump bay with glass walls, its outside could not be dramatically changed, says Davisl, whom his daughter calls the "ambassador" for the restaurant. Inside, however, everything but the walls and roof were redone.

"Everything was in dilapidated shape," he says. "We took out the (car) lift and repoured the floors. Two outer bays (of the three added to the original building over the years) became dining rooms. The first bay became the kitchen and connected inside to help make traffic flow."

Cosper says her Soddy-Daisy building had been a tire repair center and a television repair shop - then was vacant for five or six years - before she opened the Blue Ribbon Cafe. The portico in front of the bay doors remains, she says, but the concrete ledge where the pumps were "was gone years ago." One problem Cosper couldn't surmount, though, was one of the indoor car lifts, which could not be moved up or down.

So, she says, they built a platform around it and use it for additional seating.

DECOR

Although several of the restaurants make distinct nods to their past with physical elements, some call attention to their heritage with memorabilia and wall signage as well.

The Filling Station, for instance, has walls covered with items from gas stations of the 1940s and 1950s, says Strain, as well as restored, decorative gas pumps in one of their dining rooms.

Similarly, Corley says the downtown burger restaurant "has as much of the gas station paraphernalia from the [1934-2000s] era" when it was a station.

"We want to have as much continuity as possible," he says.

The Blue Ribbon Cafe, the Farmer's Daughter and the BrewHaus, meanwhile, have chosen different decorative schemes.

"We don't play on the gas station past," says Blue Ribbon owner Dianne Cosper.

HISTORY

Universal Joint's building saw cars serviced on site within the last 10 years, while neither the BrewHaus location nor the Filling Station in Dalton have been gas stations in at least 40 years.

The Filling Station, according to Strain and Davis, was built around 1910 and apparently served as both a rental car agency and gas station in its early years.

Since Dalton was "quite a thriving [railroad] center for a lot of commercial trade, the building's location just north of the depot was a prime location for salesmen who needed to rent cars," says Davis. Indeed, one sales journal he found noted that a 1912 model that could be rented came with one rental spare time, one spare tube and a jack.

Its time as a service station lasted into the late 1960s, says Strain. It was a sign shop in the 1980s, she says.

The BrewHaus location on Frazier Avenue, according to city directories, was Johnny's Texaco Service Center in 1957, vacant in 1973, Joyce & Hoppy's Say-Loon Tavern in 1989, the Blue Angels Cafe in 1998 and Tin Roof Bistro in 2005.

The building housing Universal Joint was erected in 1934 and was Fountain Square Gulf for many years before becoming Farrow's Service Station.

The station that became the Farmer's Daughter wasn't built until 1954, though the city directory listed the property as vacant in 1957. For the next 40 years, it was listed as Riverview Esso or Riverview Exxon, though those who grew up in the area say they knew it as Crabtree's Exxon. Restaurant officials say it was vacant for the last eight or nine years before owners Mike Mayo and Ann Keener had the idea for the eatery.

JURY STILL OUT

Universal Joint and the Farmer's Daughter both opened earlier this year and the BrewHaus in 2011, so it remains to be seen whether recent efforts at turning service stations into restaurant will be long-term successes.

But with the Blue Ribbon Cafe 10 years old and the Filling Station nearly 10, there is a bit of longevity to bank on.

Davis, in fact, thinks his daughter and the Dalton restaurant have hit just the right notes.

"The area has supported it real well, he says. "She's never had a slow day."

Contact Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooper CTFP.