When you can close your business on the busiest day of the week forever and never look back, things are going pretty well. That was the case in 2013 for Glen Meadows, owner of Wally's Restaurant in East Ridge.
"I was at my wit's end because the business is relentless," says Meadows, who was the first general manager of Wally's when it opened in 1989. Today, he is the sole owner of the Southern-style, all-day buffet celebrating its 30th birthday. "I knew we couldn't keep going seven days a week."
Several months before, someone had posted a set of the Ten Commandments inside the restaurant door. Meadows, a man of faith, took it down because of the controversy it can create. He placed the laminated poster on a bench in his office.
"My faith is important, but I am not the kind of guy who is going to put 'John 3:16 – Come get a biscuit' on my sign," says Meadows. "But I would go to church on Sunday and then everything was washed away walking into a madhouse of customers at work.
"One day, I looked at the poster in the office, and I said, 'OK, wow.' The idea of a day of rest on Sunday just jumped up and hit me."
At first, Meadows tried two compromises. First, he reduced Wally's' hours of operation to 8 a.m. — 3 p.m., but the same crowd came. Then, he moved the hours to 11 a.m. – 3 p.m., and the same crowd came.
"It was just a madhouse and about to kill me," Meadows recalls. "I knew I was still not getting that day of rest that I needed and that my employees needed. I just decided to close on Sundays."
The result was not a drop in revenue or lost loyalty from customers. The crowds grew larger on Friday and Saturday, and Meadows said they never missed the lost revenue from what was traditionally his biggest revenue-producing day. Meadows and his 34 employees had their day of rest.
Growing up working at Wally's
Meadows began working Wally's downtown before he was a teenager for Tony Kennedy, a close friend of his fathers who bought Wally's on McCallie Avenue in 1974. He attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and graduated in 1988 with a double major in business management and accounting.
"I'd cook catfish on Friday nights and wash the dishes," recalls Meadows, who worked a 40-hour week throughout college. "I make biscuits and those cake donuts everybody liked back then. I graduated from college and was ready to spread my wings and go into the banking business."
Kennedy told Meadows about a job opening for manager at the Country Place Restaurant, another "meat and three" with multiple locations, including the one where Wally's sits today. Kennedy told Meadows to "go check it out," and Meadows returned with knowledge that the owners were looking to sell the East Ridge location. That led to Kennedy purchasing the restaurant and Meadows becoming its manager at 26 years of age.
The old building right off the interstate at Exit 1 was too old for Meadows when he and Kennedy leased it in 1989. Eleven years later, Meadows bought the land where the restaurant sat, and planning began to build a new building right next to the existing one.
"The building was old and dilapidated, even had clay pipes in the drains it was so old," said Meadows, who said he became a real partner with Kennedy the day he went to the bank and signed the note for property in 2000. "We opened in September 2001 and the growth was steady.
"I knew the restaurant business was hard. Buffets are even harder because of the volume of the food, the waste and the unknown factor. In a perfect world, I would have preferred a meat and three, serve the same food but have more control over the quantities and maybe a better profit. But, you know, we came into a buffet environment that just dictated we stay a buffet."
Wally's outlives other rival eateries
Wally's is located in a 10,000-square foot building and has a capacity of 320 people with three banquet rooms than can become one that seats 140 customers. In the early 2000s, Wally's competed against buffet restaurants up and down Ringgold Road. Shoney's, Uncle Buds, Ryan's, Bob Evans and Edison's were all viable businesses along Ringgold Road in East Ridge in the past. None of those competitors are in business today in East Ridge, but Meadows is.
"I think the restaurant works because of the consistency of the product, that's No. 1," says Meadows, 56, who has several employees who have been at Wally's since it opened. "I am out there every day with a little bowl eating a bite of everything that's out there. We keep a competitive price and the service is outstanding. If you have longevity and have been around awhile, you have to be doing something right."
New East Ridge city manager Chris Dorsey lives in Hixson and never had a meal at Wally's before he took his new job in early May. He got his first look at the 30th anniversary celebration at the end of his first week of work.
"When I walked into Wally's, the first thing I noticed was the hometown feeling," Dorsey says. "It was like the people eating there felt like they were eating in their own kitchen. The service and food were great, and Glen came out from the kitchen to welcome me on my first visit."
Lessons from the Great Recession
Meadows said the business grew at a steady pace through its first five years before the economy began to slow down. He said 2006-08 were the toughest years he's ever seen in business but the place where he learned his best lessons in business.
"In 2006, it was like you were in a bathtub and then it began to slow down," said Meadows, who manages rental property and builds homes and apartments with a business partner when he is not in Wally's. "In 2007, it got slower and in 2008, it was just a drip.
"The recession was the defining point for me because of what I learned. If you really tighten up and get in there and spend a lot of time, employees will make concessions when they see you making concessions. The more time I spent in the restaurant the more I could keep my hands on. I think the customers see the same thing and it builds more loyalty.
"When things started picking up in late 2008, we were ready because we were a lean, mean fighting machine," he recalls.
By 2010, Meadows was in a position to buy Kennedy out of the business, pay off the mortgage and enter the new decade debt free. Business was again growing at a steady pace. Meadows' brother, Gary, bought the downtown Wally's from Kennedy in 2012.
Signs of East Ridge revival
In 2014, plans for a Bass Pro Shop and the development of Exit 1 were in place, and Meadows saw a 20-25% jump in his business when the development opened in 2016. He is now watching as Utah businessman Bob Martino prepares to build a $125 million development that includes a 5,500-seat stadium for the Chattanooga Red Wolves soccer club just down the street from Wally's.
"I don't know what to expect, but it's something for East Ridge, isn't it?" says Meadows. "I just hope Exit 1 doesn't become Shallowford Road."
On a recent visit to Wally's, the parking lot had license plates from Tennessee, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio. Meadows said spring break in many northern states occurs in early March and the fact that Wally's has repeat customers on an annual basis as they travel to Florida.
"People have been stopping here for 30 years," says Meadows, the father of two adult children who he believes will work in the business in the future. "They come in here and are treated like regulars."