After six decades, there's still a buzz about Bea's. Each day, the dining room is packed with loyal patrons. The staff knows most of them by name. Newcomers come through the door as well, wanting to try the Bea's experience.
This year, Bea's Restaurant celebrates its 60th birthday. Opened by Bill and Beatrice Steele in 1950, the eatery continues operation in its original location, still serving food the old-fashioned way -- on a large lazy Susan that whirls around the table, offering diners fried chicken sweet tea and other Southern favorites using many of Mrs. Steele's original recipes.
Nothing's changed much through the years, though when it first opened, people could get an all-you-can-eat meal for 75 cents -- it's now $9.99 for adults, $8.99 for seniors over 55. Youngsters eat at a reduced prices. It's a family place.
"I have heard people say they could even get a meal for 50 cents," said Doug Bradshaw, the Steele's grandson who now runs the restaurant with son Dusty, brother Mike and Mike's sons Stacey and Bryan. Following the Steeles' retirement, their daughter and son-in-law, Bernice and H.L. Bradshaw, took over until their sons -- Doug and Mike -- could take charge.
It's a four-generation business that keeps the family busy.
"It's more demanding on us than our marriages," Doug Bradshaw said. "Thank God we all have understanding wives."
The restaurant opened as a small establishment -- just one dining room with a handful of tables and an apartment on the second floor where the Steeles lived for a while.
ENTER LAZY SUSAN
When Bea's first opened, the East Lake neighborhood in which it is located, was a solid middle-class area. There were manufacturing plants all around, such as Chris-Craft, and workers needed a place where they could have a quick lunch.
"So Bea and Bill put in the lazy Susans for the plant workers to get them in and out in 30 minutes," Doug Bradshaw said.
The tables look the same, though the Formica tops have been replaced with new Formica and the lazy Susans now sport sneeze guards -- state law. But the condiments arranged on the top shelf of the lazy Susans are the same -- jars of Tabasco peppers, chopped onions, pickled beets, chow-chow and hot sauce alongside pitchers of water and freshly brewed tea. And the main shelf is always filled with food that keeps coming hot from the kitchen as long as you want it.
"My first 'date' was at Bea's," said Chattanooga resident Tina Harvey Crawford. "I was in the fifth grade. We went to church, then Bea's. You gotta love a lazy Susan."
Not much has been added to the menu through the years -- just strawberry cobbler when berries are in season.
"And we started doing fried catfish on Friday nights," Doug Bradshaw said. "We don't change a whole lot."
But one thing hasn't changed: It's all made from scratch, starting at 5 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
"The recipes were in place when we got here," Mike Bradshaw said. "And along the way, they were smart enough not to mess with them."
NEAR AND FAR
Although Bea's is off the beaten path, its popularity brings people from around the city, and its reputation brings out-of-towners to its nondescript building.
Atlantan Frank Staples grew up in Chattanooga, but continues to eat at Bea's whenever he comes home. "Usually I go there before I go to my family's house," he said, adding that it's the barbecue and fried chicken that draws him in.
"The food is just like going to Grandma's house for dinner," he said. "I just hope they're around for another 60 years, or at least as long as I'm alive."
And Doug Bradshaw recalls a trip to Alaska where he met a man who made a remark about the hat he was wearing:
"It was a Bea's cap, and that man said, 'Bea's! I know Bea's. I've eaten there before.' All the way up there in Alaska."
"We're not downtown where the grant and tax money is going," he said. "It's our customer loyalty. That says a lot. They have to go by five or 10 other good restaurants to get here.
"If you're looking for fancy -- this is not the place. But by God, we've got good food and a lot of it."
About Bea's* Opened by Bill and Beatrice Steele in 1950* Now under fourth generation of family ownership* Still prepares everything served from scratch daily, starting at 5 a.m.* Serves 4,000 pounds of fried chicken each week, using the original recipe.* Serves an average of 150 gallons of fresh-brewed tea daily.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Now into the fourth generation, Bea and Bill Steele's great-grandson Dusty Bradshaw says he never thought about working anyplace else.
"I graduated from college and always knew I wanted to come back here," he said.
"It's all they ever wanted to do," Doug Bradshaw said of his son and nephews. "And that's something I'm really proud of. I think Bea and Bill would be speechless about what we've done here. Never in their wildest dreams would they believe we're still here after 60 years. We'd like to think they'd be real proud to see what we've done and how we do it."