KINGSPORT — Church Hill’s Scott and Brenda Sandidge will soon be trying to find somewhere else to eat buffet-style country fare.
Sharlene and Jerry Spaulding from Surgoinsville will miss the scallions on the salad bar and the chicken livers.
And six members of the extended Sells, Longworth and Herring families of Kingsport and Gray must find somewhere else to eat their usual Sunday meal.
In a move that owners Angela and Michael Vaughn attribute to COVID-19, Mama’s House Buffet, 2608 N. John B. Dennis Highway, will close forever on Monday, January 31st. The restaurant announced the news on Facebook on Friday.
Depending on what the buyer wants to do with the building, the Vaughns said decorative items ranging from vintage musical instruments and albums to farm tools and a crank-magnet wall phone and kitchen equipment could go with the building or be sold separately.
Some items are on loan and will be picked up by their owners, and some family photos will be taken by the Vaughns.
NOT ALWAYS MAMA’S HOUSE
The storied business dates back at least to the 1970s and restaurants called King’s Table and then Buffet Royale in the old King’s Giant Plaza on Stone Drive where HMG is located today.
The Vaughns bought the company in April 2016 following the death of the original owner.
“Things started going really well in 2019, and then COVID hit in 2020,” Angela said.
The store closed until reopening in May this year, but has struggled with customers not coming for in-person meals or takeout, as well as getting enough staff. The Vaughns Help was unable to fill the positions of two recently retired employees, although one returned to work on Saturdays to help out.
“People just aren’t coming out now because of COVID,” Angela said.
The restaurant initially reopened with a cafeteria-style line where staff served customers instead of customers serving themselves, but it returned to the traditional buffet, as the first COVID wave wanted.
Mama’s House also tried a non-buffet offering, including sandwiches, but Angela said that never really caught on with customers. She said she and her husband think buffets could become like dinosaurs.
In Kingsport, Golden Corral operates a 24-hour buffet, while Pratt’s is open on select days. Kingsport’s Chinese restaurants China Wok, China Star, and Ming Garden have buffets, with Ming and China Star all having buffet dining, but China Wok has a one-plate menu. Long John Silvers and Captain D’s fast-food seafood restaurants used to have buffets. Shoney’s also has a buffet and an a la carte menu, although the next remaining locations are in Johnson City and Abingdon.
LONG-TERM CUSTOMERS WILL MISS THE RESTAURANT
Sandidge, finishing a meal with his wife Saturday afternoon, said the couple had been eating at the previous restaurant or restaurants since about 1971.
“She saw it on someone’s note on Facebook,” said Sandidge, 81, of how the couple first learned about the closure. “We’ve been enjoying the variety for years.”
She said, “I like coleslaw and chicken.” He said they like to eat at Country Kitchen in Surgoinsville, which isn’t a buffet but offers country cuisine.
The Spauldings, who ate early Saturday dinners, said they used to eat at Mama’s House twice a week when he had doctor’s appointments, but lately he hasn’t had as many.
“I’ll have the scallions,” Sharlene Spaulding said, while husband Jerry added, “The scallions, lettuce, chicken drumsticks, chicken livers, bread pudding and hash browns.”
Meanwhile, Debbie Sells, 6-year-old Junior Longworth, Gay Shelter and Virginia Herring, all from Kingsport, plus Terri Herring and husband James of Gray are having to find a new place for their Sunday lunch, despite eating at that time on Saturday.
“I like the chicken and the strawberries,” Sells said over lunch.
Longworth said, “I like pie and apple pie, and I like strawberries and ice cream together and just strawberries and just ice cream, beans and chicken thighs.”
Samantha East, a nearby clerk who operates the cash register, said the young man was previously known for his fondness for fried chicken drumsticks and that the extended family used to come to the eatery to sing gospel.
In addition, Angela said high school reunions for Ketron High, where she attended her junior year, and other schools over the years have been held there, as well as meals for the Dobyns-Bennett and Sullivan North football teams.
WHAT’S IN THE FUTURE?
The Vaughns said they plan to sell the building and properties but are staying in the Kingsport area.
They said the property could be used as a restaurant, but Michael said the dining area is so large it would be difficult to provide a full-service one. She said they thought it could be converted and/or expanded into an assisted living facility, with a finished kitchen and dining area and the rest becoming vacant.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Angela. “Michael is really good at eating.” She said they had considered opening a small restaurant.
Meanwhile, she said a steady stream of customers left positive comments on Facebook about the company. When Angela goes on vacation, she says she prefers to eat at local restaurants rather than chains, where she can almost always eat at home.
“I wish more people would have thought about it before we had to get to this point,” Angela said.
The bottom line is that the business is no longer economically viable, but saying goodbye to customers who have become friends is difficult.
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