By MARINA WATERS
The Old Town Dairy Bar is somewhat of a Jonesborough institution. From stops in the summer for a burger and ice cream to a sweet treat after a day at the ballfields, the restaurant is a staple in Tennessee’s Oldest Town. And now the place will be getting a remodel later this year.
“We hope to remodel the dining room,” owner Jerry Bowman said on a Friday morning before the restaurant opened for the day. “We will do that probably in the later part of the year. We’re thinking maybe October or November. We might have to close for a few days to remodel the bathrooms, get new lights, redo our seats and the paneling and the whole nine here.”
Bowman said the Old Town Dairy Bar has been there since at least 1965, 22 years before he first came to work at the establishment back when it was a Dairy Queen that was owned by Ted Carver. After 10 years working there, Bowman took the opportunity to buy the establishment, although not as a Dairy Queen, but as a similar restaurant that he dubbed the Old Town Dairy Bar.
Since then, everyone from Little League teams to Jonesborough patrons with a hankering for a dipped cone have flocked to the store. But Bowman says when it comes to the atmosphere of the local eatery, it’s less about the food and more about the people.
“We’re no better than the last customer that was in here,” Bowman said. “These customers are what really keep us afloat. I don’t know all of them by name, but I know their face. When they come in here, we’re so appreciative. I have just been very blessed.”
For the Old Town Dairy Bar owner, making each person who walks through the door feel like family is his goal — whether that’s a regular customer, employee or a newcomer.
“I think really it’s about relationships,” Bowman said. “Like when I first got here, mom and dad brought their kids in and then when they grow up, they have kids and it’s like a domino effect. It’s like a family. We try to make you feel like family. Just like the people who work here, we try to make them feel like family. And some of them are just like family, like I said, 20 years working with somebody, that’s pretty close. We’ve been through good and bad.”
Those hard times hit Bowman early on in his ownership of the Jonesborough establishment; in 2007, Bowman went into kidney failure. He had just bought the restaurant and was suddenly unsure of his future after being put on dialysis. But it was a member of his Dairy Bar family changed his life when she gave Bowman one of her kidneys.
“A girl here who worked with me and I knew personally, she gave me a kidney and saved my life,” Bowman recalled. “I would have been waiting on a list for a long time. She’s moved on and gone on to other things, but she said, ‘let me give you a kidney.’ And she’s no kin to me. But she matched up really well.”
Now, the Old Town Dairy Bar tries to do more than just offer ice cream and burgers; Bowman said the restaurant tries to help community efforts where it can by supporting David Crockett High School programs and athletic teams and families who are raising money for medical needs.
Above all, Bowman said it’s the hard work that got him where he is and now it’s the reason he’s stuck around after a second chance at life and his livelihood.
“I love working. I’m getting older — I’m 57. I work my five days a week, about 40 hours and it’s just about a dream, actually. I wanted to own a business one day,” Bowman said. “Things gradually went my way, but about the time I was buying it, my kidney failed. (The previous owner of the restaurant) could have pulled the plug on it any time, but he didn’t. I had my wife down here and she done it until I got better. But I’m full blown now.”
The Old Town Dairy Bar is located at 318 W Jackson Blvd, Jonesborough. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.