DUNLAP, Tenn. — The bright blue roof of the Cookie Jar Cafe in Dunlap, Tennessee — seen for years gleaming like a gem in the Sequatchie Valley — is now a shiny silver as rebuilding work continues on the iconic eatery that was substantially damaged by a June 25 fire.
A three-man construction crew was building new steps and an entrance ramp to the restaurant Wednesday, slightly redesigned from its former shape. The exterior is wrapped in a construction blanket, and the Cookie Jar's roof — flames on June 25 were raging through it — has a new layer of roofing felt and is ready for the next step. The roofline now has more of a barn-like shape than before.
Inside, the restaurant has been stripped down to the studs, with all the windows and doors removed and readied for replacement, and owners Sue Ann and Jody Lockhart promise the same farmhouse feel with an entirely new layout. The reopening date was originally aimed at the first of the year, but the rebuilding pace has the Lockharts hoping it's sooner.
"Everything's going along great," Sue Ann Lockhart said Wednesday in a phone interview. "We're still trying to figure out when our opening date is going to be. We're looking at — hopefully — the first of November now. It is coming along extremely fast, so we should know more in a couple of weeks."
The new barn-shaped roof will be covered with blue and black shingles, she said Thursday in a follow-up phone interview.
"It's going to be neat," Sue Ann Lockhart said. "You don't see a lot of it around here."
Rebuilding of Cookie Jar Cafe
Opened in 2002, the Cookie Jar Cafe is nestled in the rolling hills of the Sequatchie Valley on the Johnson Family Farm, which has a history that goes back more than 150 years, Sue Ann Lockhart told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2017 when the restaurant marked its 15th anniversary. The restaurant is so named for the collection of 400-plus cookie jars that lined a plate rail in the dining room.
On June 25, dispatchers got a call around 6 a.m. CDT reporting smoke coming from the roof, and the Dunlap Fire Department had to establish a water shuttle operation because there are no fire hydrants near the restaurant, according to the city agency's statement on the fire.
After it was extinguished, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation launched a probe because of Jody Lockhart's links to the Sequatchie County Sheriff's Office, where he was a longtime detective, and the 12th Judicial District Attorney's Office, where he is now an investigator, according to authorities. The 12th Judicial District includes Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties.
The Lockharts were out of town when the blaze broke out, according to District Attorney Courtney Lynch, but Lynch requested the TBI look into the fire over the possibility someone was seeking retaliation.
The TBI determined the cause was electrical, Lynch said in June, and no foul play was found.
The Lockharts at first weren't sure what the future held. They had no insurance on the building, they said after the fire, but in July, the family announced they would rebuild, and Cookie Jar Cafe fans rejoiced.
Cookie Jar supporters have been stopping by to check on progress, Sue Ann Lockhart said. Some ask about the cookie jar collection that suffered smoke damage from the fire, causing all the jars to look nearly identical with a smoky, brown patina.
Only 10 to 15 jars from those regularly on display were lost to the fire, but a collection of holiday cookie jars stored upstairs was destroyed, she said.
Cleaning the wood-fired look off the surviving cookie jars is a work in progress, according to Lockhart.
"It takes about two hours per jar to get one clean," she said. "We're doing them just a little at a time."
While cookie jar cleaning is going slowly, the Lockharts are pleased with the progress of the three-man carpentry crew of Petro Escobar, José Martinez and Kevin Elvir, she said. The three men started work less than a month ago.
Escobar and Martinez said the work was going well as they worked on the entrance Wednesday.
"This crew is amazing," Sue Anne Lockhart said. "As far as we've come in three weeks, it's just unbelievable."
As the work moves forward, the Lockharts are still offering gift cards to help pay employees, she said. The gift cards, available on the restaurant's website, are not a fundraiser but a thank you for the help that generates some cash flow to help pay employees affected by the fire who were unable to find other jobs.
In return for helping out now, folks who buy a gift card are rewarded with a little something to spend on themselves, Sue Anne Lockhart said. The gift card can be spent anywhere, including at the cafe.