Milligan Café offers personal touch, ‘down home’ dining experience

Published 2:41 pm Wednesday, November 22, 2023

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By Angela Cutrer

Star correspondent

Milligan Café on Milligan Highway is a diner that offers things you can’t get anywhere else. That includes a chef who makes up his own recipes and a front-of-house manager who offers free hugs. 

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These owners want you to know they care so much about you as a diner that the phone can ring off the hook, but they won’t answer it until they’re done with making you comfortable. “If you took the time to come in, we take the time to give you our attention,” John Colson said.

John and Heidi Colson, who now live in the Happy Valley community, have lived in many different locations, bringing their love of good food and good company in their wake. The last trip – from Asheville, N.C., to Johnson City – started as an informational visit in a search for a new setting. John kept his eye out for a suitable location, knowing that since food service takes a lot of effort, he and his wife wanted to live within a five-mile radius.

It was beneficial that John and Heidi Colson already survived owning several restaurants throughout their relationship. “It’s a lot of work,” John explained. “But I enjoy cooking and anyone who meets Heidi can’t help but love her.” 

That’s what welcomes diners at the Colson’s Milligan Café. The couple’s effort is apparent and appreciated and business is booming. 

John is the creative chef who puts his soul on a plate, while Heidi nourishes diners’ souls to ensure complete comfort. And they both love their jobs. 

“We’ve owned a lot of restaurants, and we figured that our style of cooking would be welcomed by this community,” John said. “There is a lot of college help around and the customers here are wonderful. We have enjoyed the process and the people we’ve met here.”

John relates that this region’s citizenry is the kind that appreciates a comfortable, grandmother’s kitchen kind of experience. That’s why Milligan’s Café’s décor is filled with old signs, pictures from the past and other old-fashioned touches that bring a sense of “home” to the eating experience.

Everything at Milligan’s Café is made in-house, including the Hawaiian meatloaf, a local favorite. But it’s only one of about five meatloaf recipes John cooks. He’s also a wiz with omelets and gravy – all made from scratch. “I’m very proud of my food,” he said. “We could make more money buying ready-made ingredients, but that’s not what we want. We want to enjoy the experience, too, and a small restaurant is something we can create and be proud of every day.”

Other menu items include a totally unique chicken parmesan, beef tips and pork chops, a Reuben sandwich that one local man claimed to be the second best (after Reuben) in the country, potatoes made all kinds of ways with the 300 pounds of spuds the café uses in a week, and even one-of-a-kind hot dog offerings.

“We appreciate the small details and we know our customers do as well,” Heidi said with a laugh. “We focus on the whole experience. It’s an atmosphere of family and I give as many hugs as possible.”

The couple both said that ensuring a positive ambiance is crucial to what they want for their business and the people it serves. “We want customers to feel like they are ‘coming home,’” they both said in unison. “We moved here on purpose. We chose this place over everywhere else.”

In the end, the Colsons hope their customers will be glad they did. Milligan’s Café is located at 1436 Milligan Hwy., Johnson City. For more information, call 423-262-8040 or visit them on Facebook at