Teresa and Jerry Collins, owners of Clarence’s Drive-In, said they are optimistic about reopening their restaurant as soon as possible. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Clarence’s Drive-In offered more than a menu with a wide variety of high-quality food. The restaurant was like a second home to many of the employees, and a popular hangout spot where customers knew they would be served by friendly, familiar faces.

Those in Unicoi County and surrounding areas are deeply saddened by the loss of the well-known eatery after the building was destroyed in an accidental fire that began around 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 14. The cause of the fire was determined to be from an asphalt sealing company that was using a propane torch to get rid of grass and debris in cracks in the parking lot.

“I had the fire marshal come in and he did meet with the company that was doing the sealing for the parking lot and he determined the fire started at the bottom of the door that lead into the bar section of the restaurant,” Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said. “It was a smoldering fire is what the marshall said, and it was a slow burner. The hottest spot, or the origin of the fire, was determined because there was nothing left in that area.”

The fire marshall brought in a full team as well as a dog that was able to detect any potential accelerants. According to Hensley, since the fire was deemed accidental there will be no criminal charges filed. 

Teresa and Jerry Collins are the current owners of Clarence’s Drive-in, but the restaurant has been in Teresa’s family long before she became the owner. The iconic restaurant, formerly known as “Engles,” was owned by Clyde Engle until Clarence Tapp, Teresa’s uncle, purchased the diner in 1969.

Lawrence Haun, Teresa’s uncle, and Walter Garland, her father, became co-owners and her aunt ran the restaurant for years. Both Garland and Haun were former Unicoi County sheriffs, and when Haun retired, Teresa and Jerry became co-owners with her father before her father’s retirement when they gained sole ownership.

“We have a lot of the same people that come to Clarence’s, and a lot of our customers come every day,” Teresa Collins said. “We have a lot of support from the community and a lot of regulars you really get attached to because you’re talking to them everyday, and so this loss has been hard for them and for us.”

Sheriff Hensley said that Clarence’s was a landmark, not just for Unicoi County, but for the whole Tri-Cities region. He has been eating there since the 1970s when he was a deputy, and he said that next to his mother’s, they had the best biscuits and gravy he had ever eaten.

“There were many times we’d be eating and we’d get a call and have to leave and they would hold our food and warm it back up for us when we had a chance to come back,” he said. “They just had very good people and service … There’s not many places like that around. It’s a bad loss for everyone in Unicoi.”

After the Collins purchased the diner they began expanding the menu and started serving their famous breakfasts all day, which was very well received among their customers. Their menu provided something for everyone – whether you were vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, a self-proclaimed carnivore, or anything in between.

“We’ve added some vegetarian and gluten free options to keep up with everyone’s needs. We have handmade vegan beet and kidney bean burgers and black bean burgers,” said Collins. “They’re both pretty popular because no one really makes them from scratch like that. We really try to have something for everyone.”

With so many options on their menu, a hospitable atmosphere and widespread popularity, Clarence’s was an ideal place for people to meet up with friends and family. Spencer Blevins, a local Unicoi County resident, said it was nice to know that he was supporting a family run restaurant when he ate there.

“I had been going there for as long as I could remember, and a lot of people had their first dates there,” he said. “Most everyone came there from all over to eat their breakfast. They had clientele from Johnson City and all over. Their banana split was a meal itself, and the hamburgers were great too … their food was unbeatable.”

According to Josh Bradley, a Carter County resident, it wasn’t uncommon to see multiple classic cars in the parking lot as people prepared to attend the Erwin Autorama or other car shows. He dined on their hamburger steak with gravy dinner multiple times. 

“A lot of people would meet there before or after the Erwin Autorama or other car shows,” Bradley said. “One of my favorite memories there was enjoying a meal with my parents shortly before my mother passed away.”   

The staff at Clarence’s were just as loyal as the customers. Collins said that she has several employees that have worked there for over five years, and one employee has been with the restaurant for over 40 years. They currently have 20 employees, but the numbers varies according to the season.   

“The Red Cross is actually helping one employee with several children, and county economic development reached out for support,” Collins said. “There’s been a lot of people offering to help with fundraisers and that really is very appreciated.”

Amy Devercelly, a former employee at Clarence’s, started a GoFundMe fundraising page to assist the employees during this difficult time. Devercelly said her younger brother and his girlfriend, who have two small children together, are current employees at Clarence’s, and like many of the other workers they feel lost not knowing what their next step will be.

“When all was said and done it was a great place to work, and my coworkers were like family to me,” Devercelly said. “I wanted to start this GoFundMe page to help the employees, because I know that if I was still working there I would hope someone would do the same for me.”

A few Johnson City restaurants have offered jobs to some of the employees, and Collins said that their employees have even offered to help them get a new building ready once the time comes.

“I’m contacting churches and different places to see if they can help by donating food boxes,” said Devercelly. “Thanksgiving is coming up and people can help by giving. If I’ve only raised $10 or $100, then at least I can say thank you Lord for giving me the opportunity to help someone in need.”

Devercelly actually drove by Clarence’s around 9 p.m. on Tuesday before the fire started, but little did she know it would be the last time she would see the restaurant intact.

“No one would write fire insurance because the building was so old, but the paving company was insured,” Collins said. “We have found a new place to lease. I don’t know an exact date, and I’m not sure what all needs to be done to the building, but I’m hoping we will be back up and running before too long.”

Collins said they will be leasing the former La Meza Mexican restaurant building located at 3615 Unicoi Drive, just down the road from their previous spot. They would like to get back into business as soon as possible for their employees, and they have intentions of rebuilding Clarence’s on its former lot while they lease out the new location temporarily.

Despite the heartbreaking fire, which Collins described as a bad situation all around, she harbors no hard feelings towards the asphalt paving company. In fact, the workers for the company have been customers at Clarence’s for a while.

She described the Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department as doing an amazing job and was in disbelief that there wasn’t more damage done to neighboring buildings.

“The company said they had done this for years, and it was just an accident,” she said. “My husband was talking to one of the workers, and he just kept apologizing. My husband shook his hand and he said ‘you know it was an accident, it’s okay.’ They’re very personable nice guys, and if I needed something paved I’d probably have them do it again.” 

To donate to the GoFundMe page for the Clarence’s employees, visit https://www.gofundme.com/4ptz7lc. You can contact Amy Devercelly via phone at 251-9323 or via email at disasterrecovery892@gmail.com.