Remember the Central Park on Rossville Boulevard? It's a vacant lot now. What about the Central Park on Brainerd Road? It's one of Choo Choo Bar-B-Que's locations. The Central Park on Dayton Boulevard is a coffee shop now, and the locations on Lee Highway and Ringgold Road are just memories. The Central Park in Selma, Alabama, was demolished and replaced with Huddle House. The one in West Memphis, Arkansas, is long gone, and the last time I checked the one on Yellowstone Avenue in Pocatello, Idaho, is now called Burger Hut.
Central Park has slowly dwindled from over 60 locations nationwide in its heyday to only three remaining — in Chattanooga, Hixson and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.
Recently the location in Maryville, Tennessee, jumped ship and changed its name to Bonner Burgers. So did the one on Western Avenue in Knoxville, rebranding itself as Burger Avenue. Even though the location at 395 Inman St. in Cleveland, Tennessee, still has the Central Park signage and the same menu, it has also dropped the brand while working on a new name. None of the managers or owners I spoke with were willing to elaborate on why they chose to cut ties with Central Park, although one hinted at the franchise fees.
In 1982, Robert M. Davenport split ways with the Krystal fast food chain his family founded to open the first Central Park in Highland Plaza at the intersection of Hixson Pike and Ashland Terrace. He commissioned C. Ralph Cheeks and Associates to design the unique 12-by-12-foot, two-story building with aesthetic cues from the boat houses in New York City's Central Park. Davenport claimed to be the originator of the double drive-through. This step in fast food innovation made sure Central Park customers got their burgers, fries and Coke with the utmost efficiency. Because the buildings were so tiny and the menu was very limited, overhead was extremely low, which meant cheaper prices. By the summer of 1987, you could get a quarter-pound cheeseburger, fries and a large drink $1.77 compared to McDonald's at $2.81, Burger King at $3.19 and Wendy's at $3.09, according to an advertisement in the Chattanooga Times.
What: Cheap and fast cheeseburgers, fries and milkshakes with a double drive-through.
Where: 2401 E. 23rd St. in Chattanooga with other locations in Hixson and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.
When: 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
How much: Prices range from $3 for chicken nuggets to $7 for the bacon cheeseburger combo.
"It's what we grew up on before there was a Checkers or Rally's. We had Central Park," entrepreneur Shoey Russell said by phone.
In fact, Russell had a role in Chattanooga rapper YGTUT's video performing in front of a Central Park location dressed like employees — mesh baseball caps, aprons and all. Before Russell or anybody else in Chattanooga was able to get their hands on the Big Buford from Checkers, they had to rely on the Big Bubba from Central Park.
Things have changed drastically since the days when Chattanooga Times readers voted Central Park the second best hamburger in the city in 1995 — behind Armando's. I can't pinpoint the precise era when Central Park's iconic yellow and green logo started to fade, when locations started to shutter. My guess is that it started in 2000 when the Davenport family sold Central Park to Heathrow, Florida-based Ultimate Franchise Systems Inc.
Bobby Davenport, now a real estate agent in Savannah, Georgia, is the son of Robert M. Davenport. He and his brother, Elliott, worked for their father at Central Park from the time they were legally able.
"We worked our way up through the ranks, doing a little bit of everything," he said via phone. "We all trained at the original location in Highland Plaza. Eventually, I opened the second Central Park location over by Eastgate Mall. My brother Elliott opened a third, and I opened our fourth location in Fort Oglethorpe, which isn't at the same address as the current one."
When I asked why his family chose to sell the company, he casually answered, "We weren't tired of running Central Park. We actually enjoyed it. It was just a great time to sell it. The offer made great financial sense."
Nowadays, where I and others appreciate Central Park's lowbrow charm and nostalgia in the form of onion rings and a bucket of nuggets, some simply see it as a greasy relic. I know Chattanoogaland is salivating for an In-N-Out Burger, a Whataburger and even a Walhburger, Mark Wahlberg's venture into the restaurant realm. However, until the day comes when those out-of-town franchises from Orange County, California, San Antonio, Texas, or the suburbs of Boston infiltrate the market, we should all learn to cherish the hometown hero. Before it's too late.