Destinations & Diversions: A Skoby's Reunion

J. H. Osborne • Oct 30, 2016 at 12:45 PM

KINGSPORT — Again, last week, the Barger family — and dozens of the hundreds of people who worked for them at Skoby’s over a 50-plus-year period — made me feel special.

I was among the lucky former employees and invited guests able to attend The Skoby’s Reunion, hosted by Pal and Sharon Barger  at MeadowView the evening of Saturday, Oct. 22.

I did work at Skoby’s, albeit briefly, during my junior year of high school. My relationship with Skoby’s, however, is larger due to my years as a regular. Not one with his name on a plaque marking his spot at the bar or at a specific table, but someone who didn’t think about how much like “home” it felt until it was gone.

I always felt welcomed and at home there. Even when I, myself, had not behaved at my best. And we all felt welcomed and instantly at home again at the reunion. Many of us decided, in retrospect, its official title could easily have been The Skoby’s Family Reunion or Skoby’s: A Homecoming.

If any of you are wondering how this works into my “Destinations & Diversions” theme, I suppose Skoby’s was both for many in the region, including me and mine, for more than five decades. The “destination” written about here is that old standby, “Memory Lane.” The “diversion” is that life-boosting thing called friendship.

Pal and Sharon spent most of the first hour or more greeting as many people individually as they could. Eventually the stream of guests was too constant, and before I knew it, I had lost track of who was there, whom I had or had not yet had a chance to speak with, and even the friends I was “sitting with.” That’s in quotes because all of us, all 200 or so attendees, spent the bulk of the evening working the room.

And as usual, especially in reference to myself, some of us didn’t want to leave. Yes, after the hosts departed, the “house lights” came up and the DJ started to pack up, I was among the die-hard last table to leave. My companions were Vicki Cooper Trammell (who helped locate former employees for the guest list as Pal and Sharon’s daughter spearheaded planning for the party); Mr. and Mrs. Ross (Jennifer) Walker; Mr. and Mrs. Jeff (Jennifer Berry) Bingham; Robin Davis Cleary; and Tyler Colbaugh.

Before the lights were lowered and the DJ cranked up the dance music, Pal and Sharon’s daughter Christy Cross Stout spoke on the family’s behalf:

“It’s truly great to see so many wonderful faces from the past this evening,” she said. “We’re truly honored to have you here this evening. On behalf of Pal, Mom, Chris (Barger) Rick (Barger) and I, thanks for coming out and sharing your special stories about a place we all hold dear to our heart. Looking around, I know each and every one of us would be lying if we said we didn’t miss that place. Even to this day, after 12 years being closed, people still ask why does the family not do another place like Skoby’s — or at least a bar like the Back Room? What’s the answer? It can’t be duplicated. There was only one, only one Skoby’s.”

Pal Barger’s parents, Fred Sr. and Helen, originally opened Skoby’s as a barbecue place in 1946 on Fort Henry Drive at the corner of Bridwell Street. In 1948, they moved the business to Konnarock Road.

Christy said rules regarding the serving of beer changed in the city in or about 1950 or 1951 and Fred and Helen began the transformation of Skoby’s (hey, by the way, did you know the restaurant’s name was derived from their pet name for each other?) into a full-service sit-down eatery with a classic-American menu featuring steaks, seafood and other items. By the 1970s, Pal took the helm and further transformed the family business into “Skoby’s World,” advertised as “a department store of dining rooms,” because of its multiple differently-themed seating areas. In the 1980s, the Back Room became THE see-and-be-seen watering hole for local movers and shakers.

In 1962, Merda Herzog began working at Skoby’s and was a server there until the end in 2004. Other than Pal himself, Merda was the longest-serving former employee to attend the reunion. And she was one of the most popular attendees. I barely got a chance, late in the evening, to get close enough to Merda to get a quick hug. Her first question for me? “How’s your mother?” After I said Mom is doing remarkably well: “Tell her I said hello.”

That, folks, is why Merda and Skoby’s as a whole are missed so much.

Nothing was impersonal when you walked into Skoby’s. Hospitality was, and is, a Barger family hallmark. Quality is another: in food preparation and presentation; in attention to detail; in training and management of employees; and ultimately in service to customers.

All those things are alive today in each and every Pal’s Sudden Service location. The chain was the first restaurant ever to win the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award. It is not unusual for Pal’s locations to receive perfect 100 percent scores on state health inspections.

As Christy ended a timeline of Skoby’s, she got to August 28, 2004: the last day it operated under Barger ownership and management. Pal had announced earlier that month he was donating the building and contents to Virginia Intermont College for use in its culinary program.

“When Skoby’s closed, I think we all mourned as though a part of our hearts were ripped away,” Christy said. “If those walls could talk.”

Of course, “those walls” could not talk. But the former employees can. And here are just a few quotes I gathered from some of the 200 or so people who attended the reunion:

• “I grew up there. At one point I was there longer than I wasn’t. Many of my relationships today have some sort of basis in my work at Skoby’s. Friendships that have lasted years, former customers who still call me by name and ask how I am when we pass at the grocery store or in another restaurant. My children joke that I am an example of ‘six degrees of separation of Skoby’s’ because they say everyone I talk to talks about Skoby’s. The reunion for me was an absolute joy, to see everyone together and having such a good time. Like everyone else, I want to say thanks to Pal and Sharon, Christy and the rest of the family. I started at Skoby’s on Aug. 23 — Pal’s birthday — in 1982 and worked there, including after the VIC transition, until 2007.” — Vicki Cooper Trammell. (Vicki pointed out I am proof of her children’s “six degrees” theory because we grew up one street apart, but didn’t get to know each other until she became “my” regular waitress after she “inherited” me from Jennifer Berry Bingham.)

• “I started to work at Skoby’s when I was an 18-year-old college freshman. Over 30 years later, I can honestly say it’s one of the best places I’ve ever worked. Skills that I use daily were first developed there ... dealing with the public, thinking on my feet, relationship building, management skills, pride in the quality of my work. I saw firsthand that the success of your business is directly related to the quality of employee training and most importantly that if you treat employees well, you will earn their respect and loyalty. I made lifelong friendships at Skoby’s. We were a family. It was a special time spent at a special place.” — Robin Davis Cleary, 1983-1987.

• “I thought about what brought us together again. It wasn’t merely that we worked at Skoby’s 12, 20, 30, or more years ago. The Skoby’s experience was made possible only by the loving efforts of the owners, staff, and customers who came together, at a place we all loved, in the most exceptional way. It is that feeling, of family, that was palpable when I walked into the reunion.” — Jenni Dobson, 1998-2004.

• “The Skoby’s Reunion was an unforgettable gathering of coworkers that will always remember one another, friends and patrons that we all love ... and lots of heart. It was always like a big family there. Thanks to Pal and Sharon for this amazing night.” — Matthew Musselman, 1999-2003.

• “The reunion was a reflection of my tenure at Skoby’s ... full of love, life, laughter and even a few tears. It was just as working at Skoby’s: a once in a lifetime experience. Thanks, Pal!” — Curtis Powell, 1994 until it closed.

• “Working at Skoby’s was some of the best years of my life. It was the people there that made it the best. Going to the reunion was like going home.” — Mark Allison, early 1990s.

• “Skoby’s was one of my most memorable as well as enjoyable jobs in my work history. I not only learned some valuable work ethics from my time there, but also met many wonderful people and formed cherished friendships that will last a lifetime.” — Tyler Colbaugh, 1989-1996.

My personal memories of Skoby’s run the gamut, from trivial, snapshot-like glimpses of a particular moment not associated with any particular “life event,” to milestone moments for me and my family.

Glimpses: A local mogul’s wife brushed past me during happy hour in the wildly-crowded Back Room, circa 1982, and I instantly recognized her perfume as the then-oh-so-exclusive Giorgio. And I blurted out “Giorgio!” I instantly grew in her esteem. She asked my name. From then on, when we passed, she spoke and asked how I was or what I’d been up to. I had only been to Giorgio, the famous store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills exactly one time. Just a few weeks earlier while in L.A. to attend a friend’s wedding. Otherwise, I’d not have had any clue about that perfume until it was marketed in department stores nationwide. Chris Ponichtera (Davenport back then) taught me to play backgammon at Skoby’s, in the Clown Bar upstairs (while eating freshly-popped popcorn and both of us discussing clothes-buying habits with Sherron Lane). I almost watched the fireworks for the first ever Fun Fest from the Skoby’s roof. Hal Carmack started to lead me and another guest or two in that direction. We made it into the attic, through the doorway in the actual bar of the Clown Bar, before he decided better and we went downstairs and watched from the parking lot above “the grove” between Skoby’s and Konnorock Road. I caused a waitress to have singed eyebrows one evening when I decided I would light the gas logs in the fireplace Carmack (Pal’s cousin and the man who knew how to make-it-work for any building project - from the sign over Pal’s #1 on Revere Street to all the curiosities at Skoby’s) had ingeniously added to the second-floor Tavern. I turned the gas on, but couldn’t get the flame to light. I turned the gas on higher. And higher. Still no flame, no matter how many matches I lit and threw onto the “logs.” So, I finally walked to the bar and asked the cocktail waitress if she could light it for me. She didn’t realize I’d left the gas running for a bit. When she lit a match and leaned right down into the logs “whoof” big flare up. Rick Barger introducing me to dishes such as ratatouille and ceviche and how to pronounce Gruyere (and many other items). I remember a bartender letting me know, as if he were reminding himself — not pointing out my lack of knowledge — that to “freshen your drink” meant simply to add ice, not create a drink (nor add, therefore, to your tab).

Family stuff: My 18th, 19th, and 21st birthdays. My 40th birthday. Many others. My grandmother’s (Maude Ward Osborne’s) 90th and 94th birthdays (others with her, too, but these two especially because for the 90th my parents hosted a huge BBQ, catered by Skoby’s Pantry, and the 94th because it was her last (just close family in the Orient, all to ourselves). Too many New Year’s Eve’s to count, but especially those spent with my parents. My parent’s stories of their early anniversaries in the late 1950s (My mother just this week, for the first time ever, described to me in great detail the outfit she wore to Skoby’s when my Dad took her for her first anniversary dinner there). And their 50th wedding anniversary in 2005 (the first party hosted in the restaurant after it transitioned to Virginia Intermont College operations).

There are things I still crave from Skoby’s: port wine cheese on melba toast, butter on sesame rounds, Skoby’s Perfect Salad, Back Room Chicken Sandwiches; meat traps; Greek Salad, Fried Ice Cream with a little drizzle of amaretto or Frangelico or creme de menthe; Curb Burgers; onion rings (by the foot, my father always ordered at least one foot for the table); blue cheese dressing. house dressing; and cocktail sauce like no other.

But what I miss the most, of course, is that feeling we all shared again last week — of being made to feel special, yet as comfortable as if being at home.

Thank you Pal and Sharon. Thanks to the rest of your family — both immediate, and the greater Skoby’s one all of you cultivated so lovingly over all these years.



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