Shirley’s closing for good. Maybe.
Published 3:25 pm Thursday, March 16, 2023
‘When you run out of family, it’s hard to run a family business’
By Angela Cutrer
Jeff Sharpe’s voice carried so much weight over the phone; you could tell he was miserable. But he was firm in what needed to be done right now: Close down the family restaurant.
“When you are running out of family, it’s hard to run a family business,” he said. “Maybe down the road things will change, but we’ve been struggling with so many health issues and then COVID-19, so it’s been a rough few years for us.”
Shirley’s Home Cooking, located on Highway 321, Butler, near Watauga Lake, first opened with Jeff’s mom running a grill. The building was a service station and had junk cars around as well as gas pumps. In 1990, they removed all the station paraphernalia and named their new restaurant “Shirley’s Home Cooking.”
Shirley Sharpe served local diners homemade family style meals she learned to prepare first-hand from her own mother. The new restaurant, through many renovations throughout the years, seated about 250 guests and offered food, live music and a family atmosphere served “with a heaping helping of southern hospitality,” its website stated.
“It really should have been called ‘Shirley and Grant’s Home Cooking’ because my dad did a lot of work there, too,” Sharpe said.
But its current location goes against it with the aging of the Sharpe family. “It’s location and the items we have to buy and the staffing issues – it’s really expensive now [to run it],” Jeff says. “I remember when I was young I thought running the restaurant must be so easy because of the hours it was open. I didn’t realize all the things that went on behind the scenes.
“Cooking is the easy part, and you gotta add some love to it, but you have to also make sure things are clean, the tables are set up, it’s staffed and on and on.
“The family is the most important part of a ‘family business’ and just like any family, it gets smaller as people pass away and struggle with health issues. We can’t just let someone else run it – we don’t even have recipes. We just know how something is supposed to taste. So the family and the taste of the food has been the secret of our success.”
The family was deep into the running of the restaurant. Jeff and his wife, Angie, worked there. His mother, father and brother did, too. His uncles, John and Jim Mathison, did as well and their wives had a hand in the restaurant. His cousins, Rick and Mike Mathison, labored with the rest of the family – Mike slicing the ham for near about 30 years.
Jeff’s daughter, Kaylin, starting working there when she was 15; she’s now a graduate of ETSU and working elsewhere. Cousin Angie Odom, who founded the TLC Community Center, worked there, too. Shirley’s caretaker, Patty, who Jeff calls “like a member of the family,” helped out. Even John’s ex-wife, Barbara Mathison, ran the register.
“We have nothing but good things to say about our customers,” Jeff says. “Customers who first came into the restaurant in a bassinet later brought their own children in a bassinet to the restaurant. That’s when you know you’ve made an impression on people.”
On Wednesday, March 15, Jeff made an announcement on the restaurant’s Facebook page. It reads as follows:
“We would like to take this opportunity to let everyone know, that due to health issues in our family, Shirley’s Home Cooking will not be reopening for the 2023 season.
“Running a family business is one of the most difficult things anyone can do. It has its up and downs, but the key to any family businesses’ success is family. Unfortunately, our family is being challenged on several fronts and we have to prioritize our lives and move on.
“Anyone [who] knows us understands that the last few years have been very challenging. Not only due to health reasons, but this post COVID environment has not been kind to us.
“We have had a great 33-year run and have memories to last a lifetime. We are holding our heads high and are very proud of our product, accomplishments and awards we have received over the years.
“Who knows what the future holds for Shirley’s Home Cooking as a brand, but to continue to open and not have a back-up plan for the future would be doing a disservice to our guests [who] have traveled countless miles to enjoy a meal at Shirley’s.
“We do have some catering jobs and parties already scheduled for this year and we plan on honoring those commitments. We are also planning on continuing to do catering …
“From our entire Shirley’s family, we want to thank all our faithful guests for taking the time to visit and hopefully our paths will cross again in the future.
“May GOD bless you all.”
“We don’t want to be poor mouthing,” Jeff says. “We are happy with what we’ve done and appreciate all the support we’ve received. We just have to turn the page. We’ve tried hard to keep our Mom and Dad’s legacy alive, but everything has a beginning, a middle and an end.
“Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. We are going to try to keep this catering going and if things turn around, who knows… We just want to go out on top rather than have people saying that Shirley’s food is just not ‘the same – it’s not as good any more.’
“And maybe this is not the end, but just a different chapter.”
Shirley’s is taking orders for catering. Call 423-957-1320 for more information.