A longtime Lebanon eatery is set to close its doors for last time on Sunday, Oct. 10 after more than 50 years in business.
“We feel good about it. We’re going to miss it, but we’ve put our time in,” Sunset Restaurant owner Bob Hodge said.
Bob and Virginia Hodge recently announced that they plan to retire next month, closing a 54-year chapter of their lives. The couple cited health as the main reason for retirement.
“We’ve enjoyed it,” Virginia Hodge said.
Sunset Restaurant was built in 1959 by Vestal Fox, the brother of Bob’s stepfather. Bob’s mother, Frances, and her husband bought the eatery four years later.
In 1967, Bob and Virginia, as well as Bob’s brother, Bill, and his wife, Pat, took over as owners of the restaurant. Bob and Virginia became sole owners of Sunset Restaurant in 1983.
“I didn’t like cooking breakfast, so I cut breakfast out and in 1986, we went to lunch and dinner,” Bob said.
“That was when fast food came along and people could sleep 30 minutes longer and drive through the window and grab a biscuit, so we just cut breakfast out,” Virginia said.
As for the Sunset property, the Hodges said there are plans for the property to be sold and the building to be torn down and replaced with a car wash.
The restaurant operated as one of the main restaurants along Highway 231, which served as the main north-and-south artery in Lebanon and Wilson County.
“We’d have people that stopped twice a year – once going to Florida and once going back to the North,” Bob said.
The couple said the growth of the restaurant is one of the more surprising and unexpected part of the journey.
“We’ve got customers from both ends of the state, Kentucky and all over,” Bob said.
The restaurant has tripled in size from its original square footage after two additions, one of which came after former Lebanon mayor Bill Baird drove through the original dining room.
“We had metal blinds and that stopped the glass, so there were no injuries,” Bob said.
The couple praised the work of its employees, which includes a group of longtime personnel, including Shirley Ferrell (38 years); Jean Shutt and son, Jim (34 years); Terry Arceneaux (31 years); and Tammy Gonzalez (20 years).
“I have squalled like a baby,” Jean Shutt said. “It’s broke my heart. I understand it, but I know for a fact that Bob Hodge has tried his best to keep it a restaurant and keep his people. He’s fought for that for, at least, six or seven years.”
Shutt said the Sunset employees have become family over the years and does not expect that to change once the restaurant closes.
“I’m never letting them go. They’re never letting me go. We’re going to have Sunset family meetings two or three times a year. We’ve already decided to do that,” she said. “We’ve watched everybody grow and helped each other through all of the challenges we’ve had to go through.
“It was family, and it was an awesome ride.”
Shutt recalled when she battled cancer a few years ago that she did not know how to drive in Nashville and got help from Virginia Hodge.
“She took me to every (doctor’s) visit,” Shutt said.
“We treat people like we want to be treated,” Virginia said. “We feel like if you’ve done that, then you’ve done all you can do. We’ve got a good bunch of people. We’ve got a good, honest bunch of people.”
The practice of closing the restaurant for a few weeks during the year rose after the couple granted their staff week off during their early years. The couple said the week almost “worked them to death.”
The following year, Virginia suggested they take a vacation with the staffers, and Bob worried if the move would drive away business. They ultimately decided to take the vacation.
“The next year we took two weeks,” Virginia said.
The customers were lined up at the doors when the restaurant reopened.
“We have some very loyal customers,” Bob said.
“We’ve got people that are bringing their grandchildren that were coming with their parents when we started. Now, they’re bringing their grandchildren,” Virginia said.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve done and our customers. That’s what made us – our customers. They have really been loyal,” Bob said.
The pair said customers were the reason they were able to survive after several chicken-based fast-food chains opened on Highway 231.
“People see our parking lot,” Virginia said. “We’ve heard people say that they’ve seen our parking lot full and said it meant something had to be good over here. They come and try it and they come back.”
“When I was just a kid, I heard a commercial by Colonel Sanders, and he said to give people good food, good service and reasonable prices and they’ll be back,” Bob said.
The couple said the next chapter of their lives will include trips in their motorhome, spending time with family and enjoying the University of Kentucky athletics.