“People bring in baked goods, banana pudding, pickles, hot peppers. I am the only person in the world that owns a restaurant and people bring me food. They are not friends. They are family,” said Sheila, of the folks who live in the valley split by rippling Peyton Creek as well as those who motor across the ridge from Defeated and Difficult.
“When we’re really busy,” Steve said, “They’ll get up from their chairs and take orders, buss tables, come in the kitchen and wash dishes. If I get behind on my lawn work, some of them will even mow the grass and do some weed-eating.”
That a mutual love affair has been flourishing over the past year here is an undeniable fact.
“The Pleasant Shade Restaurant is like coming home, just like coming home. You come in as you are and plop down and there’s just a really warm feeling,” said Terri Lynn Weaver, state representative from the 40th District (Smith, DeKalb and Macon counties) and a musician who performs here the second Saturday night of the month on a live radio show with the Pleasant Shade Pickers.
“The food is fabulous. Sheila and Steve—I feel like I’ve known them for years—they’re like family. Here, you let your hair hang down and eat and talk. It’s a really nice place to come.”
The Burns tell visitors their decision to open the store came from out of the blue.
“We were camping over at Defeated Creek acting as volunteers for the Army Corps of Engineers,” said Sheila, who also had been caring for her ailing father who lived on a farm in Elmwood.
“Two weeks after my father died, we were riding around one Sunday afternoon and saw this place. We called the Realtor and within 24 hours we owned it. It was just something that was supposed to happen, that we were supposed to do.”
“Really, we can’t explain it,” Steve said. “It was not even on the radar. It was culture shock for us. We moved our fifth wheel camper behind the store that October (2009) and are still living in the camper.”
“We took our retirement and put it into this place. We spent a substantial amount on fixing the place up,” Sheila said.
“It was against all odds. Everybody said, ‘You’ll never make it’,” Steve recalled. Yet, business is going great guns. On a good Friday or Saturday night, the restaurant will serve 250 to 300 diners. This Saturday, the Burns and their extended family will celebrate the first anniversary of the store.
Married for 25 years, the Nashville natives moved to Murfreesboro in 1985 where they raised six children. (Four still live in the ’Boro.) And they now have 14 grandchildren.
Sheila, 55, worked in the medical profession for 18 years and retired in 2002. Steve, 57, labored for 36 years for Thompson Machinery, a Caterpillar dealer in LaVergne, and retired in 2008. The couple still owns their home in Murfreesboro, but Pleasant Shade has grown on them to the extent that they rarely take a vacation.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere, but we’re in the middle of everywhere,” Sheila said, referring to their proximity to three other counties: Macon, Trousdale and Jackson. From the store it’s 12 miles to Carthage, 12 miles to Lafayette and 10 miles to Red Boiling Springs. Customers also mosey in from Lebanon, Gallatin, Cookeville and Murfreesboro. The friendliness and the food makes it a trip worth taking.
“Nobody’s ever gone out of here hungry,” Sheila said.
Frank “Peewee” Carter, who lives 2 miles down the road in Monoville, testified, “I eat the fish ever Friday night. I’ve eat fish everywhere. This is the best fish I ever put in my mouth. If it wasn’t great, I wouldn’t be back.
“Their hospitality—you can’t go everywhere and find what you got going here. This is a great place to come and enjoy yourself while you eat great food.”
Friday night specials include baby back ribs, prime ribs and all-you-can-eat catfish with all the trimmings. The Burns use fresh meat and cut it themselves. Steve performs the smoking of the ribs, steaks and pork butts.
The country breakfasts feature sausage, bacon, ham, eggs, biscuits and pancakes. The restaurant offers sandwiches, salads and a vinegar-based cole slaw made locally by Rudolph Vinson from an ancient family recipe. Diet-busting desserts include banana pudding, peach cobbler, cake and a variety of pies.
The dining room seats 60, but 40 more can be fed in the music area. Clear fruit jars serve as globes to cover light bulbs in the ceiling. A wide-screen TV is tuned to the Fox News Channel on the back wall, and photographs of Pleasant Shade of yesteryear hang on the side walls. Shelves above the front windows display bottles, antique items and knick-knacks. Every bit of the décor has been furnished by the natives. That includes musical instruments such as a fiddle, mandolin, bass fiddle, guitar and banjo which provide a backdrop for the musicians. There is also a baby grand piano. Out front eight wooden rocking chairs tempt visitors to rock away their cares.
Sheila related that one super busy Saturday night Shelby Linville, the mayor of Lafayette, walked in with 11 companions. “We were full, and only had one table open near the front. I asked him, ‘Are they good friends?’ ‘Oh, yeah.’ ‘Are they close friends?’ ‘Yeah, pretty close.’ ‘Well, they’re fixing to get a lot closer,’ I told him. I put them all around that table, and they had a ball.”
Smith County Deputy Jimmy Lankford patrols the highway on Friday and Saturday nights to caution vehicles moving past the restaurant to stay at a safe speed. Last year the Pleasant Shade community held a benefit outside the store and raised more than $25,000 to help with medical expenses for his late granddaughter.
Steve said, “The police honk their horn when they drive by, and customers ask, ‘What’s that?’ I tell them, ‘He is just saying hello.’ This is the only business I know where everyone honks to say hello.”Normally parked behind the cash register, Steve shared an anecdote about how transactions can be a little different at his store.
“A woman who had been camping at the campground came in here and saw a guy driving a diesel farm truck use the gas pump. He filled up and drove off. She went spastic, and I told her, ‘It’s OK.’ He came back a little later with another truck and filled it up, and she said, ‘Oh, my gosh, he’s doing it again.’ Then he came in and paid for it.”
Pleasant Shade holds a population of about 50 between the signs. Eight of the residents are employees at the restaurant.
Waitress Lisa Gibbs lives 2 miles from the store and has been here for 16 years. She has been an employee since Day Two.
“I was talking to my friend on the phone about how busy it was the first night. Then I asked my husband what about me asking Sheila if she needs a waitress? He said, ‘I think you’re crazy.’ I came over here, and they were busy about lunchtime, and Sheila hired me on the spot, and I been working here ever since.”
The reopening of the store has resuscitated the spirit of the community. “When the school and store closed, nobody had anywhere to go to meet their neighbor. It’s more like a social gathering place than anything,” Steve said.
The structure housing the general store and restaurant was built in 1955. In previous lives it operated as a garage, a gas station, a hardware store and a deli. It had been shut down for two years when the Burns peeked in and had a vision.
They opened in February 2010, but heavy May rains threatened ruination as the waters of Peyton Creek rose 10 to 12 feet or more above its banks.
“When the flood waters started coming in, we fought it off as best we could, but there was no stopping it,” Steve said. “After the waters came up to 18 inches in here, we noticed people waiting at the edges of where the water was out on the road. When the water began dropping, everybody came in, more than 20 people, with mops and squeegees and started cleaning up. Some of them still had water in their own homes.”
More than the hometown folks have uncovered the special place that the Pleasant Shade Restaurant and General Store has become. Motorcycle clubs have zoomed in on the eatery, and three different biker clubs with more than 100 cyclists fed here one evening last year.
With things running fine and dandy, Steve is optimistic that it is only going to get better.
“We’re gonna hit our stride this spring. I’ve got a feeling business is gonna be real good,” he smiled.
“The people here live a very simple life. They don’t ask for a lot,” Sheila said. “Even though it’s nothing (the store and restaurant) to most people, it’s very special to them. It’s a gathering place. It’s their store. It belongs to everybody. You know how everybody gathers around the kitchen table in Mama’s house. That’s how this place is.”
Feature Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.