Families behind return of Mel’s Diner and Doughbellys are given MBJs highest honor

THE 2011 MBJ BUSINESSPERSON OF THE YEAR

In any business you figure on periods of slow sales, rising costs and tight credit.

Photo by Deryll Stegall > Phillip and Tiffany Lockhart returned to the site of their business after the tornado to find nothing but a slab and the restaurant’s cash register. “All the money was still in it,” Phillip Lockhart says. Not too much later, Phillip and Tiffany decided they wanted to be the first restaurant to reopen. They achieved that, opening up Oct. 1 in a 2,500 square-foot building on Smithville Road that had survived the storm.

But you never expect to be in the path of the strongest tornado to strike your state in nearly half a century and see all you have worked for left in ruins. Cutting your losses and walking away has to be the first option you consider.

So why didn’t Smithville restaurateurs Bobby and Melanie Edwards and their neighbors Phillip and Tiffany Lockhart move on to new pursuits or go back to former occupations after April 27’s EF-5 tornado destroyed their businesses?

The Edwards say signs signaling what they should do appeared among the debris that was Mel‘s Diner, a business they built together for 14 years. The tornado took all the walls except the one dividing the kitchen and walk-in freezer and most every other part of the structure. But it left behind much of what Bobby and Melanie would need to make a new start including grills, stoves and fryers. The cake mixes, macaroni and other food remained on a shelf undisturbed.

“All the stuff was sitting there,” Bobby Edwards says. “The equipment was there.”

The reaction of Melanie Edwards? “She said, ‘God didn’t leave all this stuff here for us to just walk off,’” her husband recalls.

“So the next day we started tearing down and preparing to come back. We made up our minds that day we were going to rebuild Mel’s Diner.”

Phillip and Tiffany Lockhart had just swung into a groove with their Doughbellys Pizzeria, having opened in a small building of about 700 square feet on Court Street four months before the tornado hit. Phillip found a slab afterward — and the restaurant’s cash register. “All the money was still in it,” Phillip Lockhart says.

Not too much later, Phillip and Tiffany decided they wanted to be the first restaurant to reopen. They achieved that, opening up Oct. 1 in a 2,500 square-foot building on Smithville Road that had survived the storm.

The two pairs of restaurant proprietors are the Mississippi Business Journal’s “Businessperson of the Year.”

The designation recognizes their perseverance and commitment to the Smithville community, said Ross Reily, Mississippi Business Journal editor. “They are extraordinary not only as business people but as people who care about their town,” Reily said in selecting the Edwards and Lockharts as the MBJ’s “Businessperson of the Year.”

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The darkest day

Shut off the gas and get into the cooler, Bobby Edwards recalls urging waitress Brandy Holloway over the phone minutes before the EF-5 rumbled through.

Photo by Deryll Stegall > Bobby and Melanie Edwards say signs were left among the debris that was Mel‘s Diner that suggested they should rebuild. They built the business from the ground up more than 14 years ago, but the tornado took all the walls except the one dividing the kitchen and walk-in freezer and most every other part of the structure. Yet, it left behind much of what the Edwards would need to make a new start including grills, stoves and fryers. The cake mixes, macaroni and other food remained on a shelf undisturbed.

Bobby and Melanie had been home for an afternoon break from work when the weather turned ominous. When alerts showed Smithville in the tornado’s path, the Edwards went to the basement of their church a couple of miles from their home.

“I called up to the diner to tell them to take cover,” Bobby Edwards said. “The waitress said, ‘You don’t understand. We have customers here.’ I said, ‘You don’t understand. It’s going to hit here in 10 minutes.’”

Holloway did as told. That made for 12 more survivors.

Edwards said he called Holloway’s cell phone after he was sure the tornado had moved on. “She answered and said everyone here was OK but the diner was gone.”

Phillip Lockhart’s survival story had way more drama than he would have liked. In the moments before the storm, “We saw something. It was really wide, a great, gray dark mass coming toward us. We realized it was the tornado when it blew up a house. It sounded like a bomb.”

That was enough for him to hustle Doughbellys’ workers Stephanie Rolfe and Allie Mills into his truck.

“We proceeded down 25 in the opposite direction of the tornado,” Lockhart says.

As the tornado veered left Lockhart turned onto Smithville Road. “That’s when it got away from us. We are very fortunate to be here. It would have hit us had we stayed in the same direction.”

Going into business

Fifty-year-old Bobby Edwards had not planned to become a restaurateur a decade-and-a-half ago. He had a career as an investigator for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department. Wife Melanie worked for a finance company but wanted to start a diner, having worked in restaurants in Amory while growing up in Smithville. “She was going to run it,” Edwards says. “But when she got pregnant and was standing on her feet for long periods, the doctor told her she had to quit. So I quit my job and came in and ran it.”

It was an uncertain time for the Edwards family. “We worried whether we would have enough business to support the family. The Good Lord took care of us,” Edwards says.

Today, Mel’s Diner is a community center of sorts. Crowds gather for breakfast, lunch and dinner and stop by at other times throughout the day to get caught up on town news and everything else.

Bobby Edwards starts his day about 4:30 each morning preparing biscuits and bacon for a 6 a.m. breakfast crowd. It’s a routine he follows every day but Sunday.

The Edwards close Mel’s at 9 p.m. They get a couple hours to go home and relax in the afternoon and catch up on things with their 13-year-old daughter.

He would eventually like to be able to take a couple days off with the family. But that’s a ways off, he says. “As a small business, you’re married to it.”

Long days are a way of life for the Lockharts as well, serving pizzerias from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday for eat-in or take-out. The post-tornado Doughbellys expanded its food offerings as well as its delivery area to Amory and Fulton.

“We’re looking at Aberdeen right now” for an additional location, Lockhart notes.

Lockhart, a 34-year-old Tennessee native, worked in pizzeria shops growing up, which he says gave him an opportunity to experiment with making a lot of different kinds of pizzerias. Today he is not shy about calling his pies the best around. “I’m pretty much ahead of my competitors because of the things I know.”

Wife Tiffany helps run Doughbellys and has learned the art of pizzeria making, her husband says. “I have taught her everything I know. She’s the one who is closest to being as good as me. She’s full-blooded Italian. That helps a lot.”

Coming back to life

The Lockharts wanted Doughbellys to be the first Smithville eatery to reopen. It accomplished that on Oct. 1 and has never seen such demand for its offerings, Phillip Lockhart says. Sales in the former location ran about $15,000 a month. The new location on Smithville Road generates sales of more than $25,000 a month, he says.

Photo by Deryll Stegall

“The community itself has embraced our business.”

The Edwards say they have experienced the same community embrace. “We fill this up everyday,” Bobby Edwards says of Mel’s Diner, which went form occupying 2,500 square feet before the tornado to more than 5,000 today.

“We’ve been open a week,” Edwards said in an early December interview. “The people of Smithville have really supported us. And they haven’t yelled at us much for having the food out slow.”

All but one worker from the former location returned and some new hires are likely, he says.

Soon, a well-worn roundtable from the old Mel’s Diner will get restored legs and go into service in the new restaurant, Edwards says. “All the men who sit around in the morning and tell their stories and drink their coffee — they wanted the roundtable back. So we’re going to put it back in its place.”

And like the roundtable, Smithville will soon be back where it was meant to be. “As long as the people stick together, our town will come back to life,” Edwards says.

And Doughbellys and Mel’s Diner will be an important part of that return to life.

“People tells us how proud they are that we came back,” Melanie Edwards says.

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