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Soup beans and emu burgers reflect tradition and change at the Hob-Nob

Fred Sauceman • Jul 17, 2019 at 10:30 AM

Bent and Elgie Strong lacked a name for their new restaurant just outside Gate City in Southwest Virginia. In 1952, a stonemason was laying block around the perimeter of the original building. When he learned that the Strongs were planning an eatery, he made an off-handed comment.

“You’re going to have a hob nob of a time,” the stonemason said. Bent Strong stopped in his tracks. It was the perfect name, and the business has been known as the Hob-Nob Drive-In ever since.

“It’s a great source of satisfaction to me to know that what my grandparents created is still living on,” says current owner Ross Jenkins.

“Goodness sakes, there’s a face from the past,” exclaims Ross in the midst of our interview. Residents from a Kingsport assisted living facility had chosen the restaurant for their weekly outing.

The Hob-Nob is one of Scott County’s most beloved places. The menu is largely unchanged from the days when the Strongs were in charge. Diners come here for all manner of hamburger variations, for hot dogs, for soup beans, for banana splits and milkshakes.

Bent Strong had worked for the Kingsport Press, across the state line in Tennessee, printing books. His grandson says Bent wanted something other than a 9 to 5 job, so he gave up his position in industry and started selling hamburgers.

“My grandparents loved to work,” Ross tells me. “And they loved people.” Although Bent’s weekly working hours doubled, he had found his calling, at a place with three booths and seven stools.

Grandson Ross Jenkins has a similar story. He gave up a corporate position with the J.C. Penney Company 37 years ago to take over his grandparents’ restaurant. And he has never regretted it.

When I ask Ross how he directs people to the Hob-Nob, he answers, “If you think you’ve gone too far, you’ve probably got a little further to go.”

But the Strongs’ choice of location was strategic. What is known today as the Daniel Boone Road was a main thoroughfare linking the Midwest to the East. In the Eisenhower era, new car sales were taking off in America.

“It was a heavily traveled road, with a constant stream of traffic from Ohio and Kentucky and points west,” says Ross, who holds a business degree from Virginia’s Emory & Henry College.

But in 1967, a bypass opened through the county. “My grandparents thought it was over for them,” Ross says. “Like so many places, when the four-lane goes around you, you die off. But the new road actually made it easier to get here.”

Instead of folding, Bent and Elgie expanded the building just a few years after that bypass was constructed. Today, a full parking lot and full tables are the norm at the Hob-Nob.

Just like his grandparents did, Ross sells chili-laden hamburgers. “My grandfather, if he had a cheeseburger, he had to have chili on the bottom. When we fix grilled cheese sandwiches, we add chili.”

One thing Bent and Elgie didn’t serve, though, was emu. It’s nowhere close to rivaling all-beef hamburgers in sales at the Hob-Nob, but it’s a heart-healthy red meat alternative, much lower in fat.

The source is Amaroo Hills, a farm in Cheatham County, Tennessee, west of Nashville. Amaroo co-owner Ngon Nguyen says emu tastes similar to beef. “We’ve served emu meat to cattle farmers who’ve stated that they cannot tell the difference in taste or texture with beef.”

Hob-Nob manager Devonne Thacker has worked at the restaurant for over three decades. She says the secret to cooking an emu burger is to do it slowly. “And put something over the top of it so it’ll stay juicy,” she adds.

A few minutes later, Devonne reappears at our table with an architectural wonder, called a “Monster Cone.” Ross says a regular cone of soft-serve ice cream consists of two and a half swirls and a large is five and a half. Testing the limits of what a cone could hold, Hob-Nob employees were managing seven or eight swirls. Now the Monster Cone is on the menu and has become the main attraction on the restaurant’s social media sites.

Emu patties and Monster Cones aside, the offerings at the Hob-Nob mainly speak of tradition. There’s a big pot of soup beans burbling on the stove about three days a week.

The neon sign outside is a link to the past, too. It was created over 60 years ago by the Rev. Howard Todd of Scott County. When it needs repair, Ross has to bring in an expert all the way from Abingdon. And he proudly points out that the sign is not LED and there is no crawler. It looks just as it did when Bent and Elgie Strong ran the place.

“Short Orders, Sandwiches, Shakes, Sundaes,” the sign proclaims. And I’d add another “S” to the alliterative list: Smiles.

The Hob-Nob Drive-In

2256 Daniel Boone Road

Gate City, Virginia

276-452-4538

Fred Sauceman is the author of the book “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”

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