Bristol, TN

A Courageous Resurrection of Bristol Tennessee's Cherished Blue Circle

John M. Dabbs

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Spirited Halloween Decor on the Blue Circle's PatioJohn Dabbs/Photographer

Taking over the ownership of the Blue Circle restaurant in September of 2019 was a real undertaking for Debbie and Mark Sourbeer. At the time the restaurant had fell into disrepair and the previous owners had frustrations about unexpected expenses. The problem with the Blue Circle is it's iconic status in Bristol, Tennessee. It's also why the couple bought it.

The Sourbeers are hands-on owners and are very active in the running of their restaurant. It is one of the secrets to their success. They've had to make quite a few upgrades due to necessity, along with repairs.

Challenges

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New Patio area for outdoor seating - used up some car-hop slotsJohn Dabbs/Photographer

Their biggest challenges to date have been finding good employees to work. Mrs. Sourbeer says "I believe we have a great group working for us now. I couldn't ask more of them. They're just great!"

The owners are also having significant supply issues, as are other restaurant owners. Not only are their costs going up significantly compared to what they were only a year ago, some items are being difficult to find. Thankfully, one of their local suppliers, Malcom's Meat Service of Bristol, Virginia, has been able to supply them with a few things their main vendors can't get.

Not only are supplies in short supply and costs going up, operational costs are also increasing. As with many small businesses, they've seen a sharp uptick in their credit card processing service fees. The continued increase in fees and supplies have led many fellow restauranteurs in the area to increase their prices a dollar or more per item. The Sourbeers have held the line with only a minimal increase in their menu prices since taking ownership. They told me during an interview Tuesday, they may be forced to make another small increase to offset costs.

Noticeable Changes

The fresh new vibe of the restaurant is obvious with the fresh signage in and around the dining room and patio area. The patio and its enclosure also being new. The patio was partially funded by a grant from Believe in Bristol.

The menu has also seen a few upgrades with everything else. They've added to their traditional burgers with the addition of the "Daddy-O". The Daddy-O is a 1/2 pound burger infused with au jus. It's been well received. I had one myself last week and found it very filling and tasty.

Knowing the owner of the now-closed Big Eddie's Deli, they wanted to give a nod to his famous 2-foot "Big Daddy" sub. The Blue Circle now serves the "Big Mama", similar to the Big Daddy with a few changes. Eddie's Big Daddy remains famous, and they didn't want to take anything away from his creation, so they used a similar name. (I asked... they do use the pepper relish like Eddie did on his sub.) Blue Circle purchased some of the tables, chairs, and equipment from Big Eddie's Deli and you can see it on their patio today.

The Sourbeers have added items to the menu which have been very well received:

  • Club Sandwich
  • Cheeseburger Salad
  • Breakfast Scrambler
  • Philly Omelet
  • Milkshakes - one size only instead of multiple sizes
  • Funnel Cake Fries
  • Daddy-O Burger
  • Big Mama Sub

They've really enjoyed the Funnel Cake Fries. These are funnel cake strips, fried like traditional french fries, and then dusted with confectioner sugar. They are served with your choice of dipping sauces. They tell me they sell like hotcakes... or funnel cakes in this case.

Other changes

When asked if they plan to make any other changes soon, they have very few which patrons will notice. They are considering a purchase of patio heaters for the patio area, otherwise they are only looking to upgrade their POS (Point of Service) system, for processing orders and payment. They also plan to continue training all employees so they can do any of the positions within the business if needed.

Business

Business has been challenge at times due to COVID, they tell me. It hit hard shortly after they opened as the new owners. As the dining room was initially closed by public order, they still had the drive-in service using the car-hops. They actually thrived with their initial business surge with the car hops. They wanted to apply for some grants to help with upgrades, but instead of business hurting because of COVID, they actually saw a revenues triple from what the previous owner had been bringing in.

Neither Debbie or Mark Sourbeer have any food service experience. What they do have is customer service experience. I believe that has been their biggest advantage - that and a hands-on approach coupled with hard work.

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John Dabbs/Photographer

Debbie Sourbeer tells me she emphasizes to all new employees during their training about always making sure customers feel they are welcome, and appreciated. Her approach is to make sure everyone feels welcome and at home. This is something I can personally attest to, as I've noticed a marked change over the last couple of years. After eating at the Blue Circle on and off as long as I can remember, I've felt more welcomed in the past few years than I ever have. I know it's not because of my personality or looks either. The vibe of the restaurant is more welcoming.

Car Hops

The Blue Circle is well known for it's car-hop service as a drive-in and dine-in restaurant. They keep the classic theme going by playing music from the ‘60s & ’70s. The car-hops are so busy, they've put their daughter Brittany Curtis over running the car-hop side. She's known as a hard worker and is able to manage and keep up the car service almost single handedly. She is a very important part of the business.

History

Many of us who've frequented Blue Circle since we were younger, remember Jimmy Whisman. Whisman is a fixture at the Blue Circle. He's worked here for 32 years under various owners. For years, I thought he was the owner, as I saw him almost continuously. He had been the face of Blue Circle for many years. Debbie Sourbeer says he was the first employee they hired when reopening.

Whisman has been with the Blue Circle for a long time, and had to take a little time for himself a while back. Thankfully, he returned on August 24th and continues to serve the crowds with gusto.

Tradition

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Debbie SourbeerJohn Dabbs/Photographer

What do they like best about the Blue Circle?

I feel really good about keeping keeping it open. The Blue Circle is special. It's part of Bristol's history and has become an icon... We've been asked about serving alcohol. I know it would bring in more money, and I have nothing against it. We don't want to bring alcohol in as we want to keep the Blue Circle as a traditional diner." - Debbie Sourbeer

When asked if they'd do anything different if they'd had a chance - her answer was no. Sourbeer believes they've done well and made a few mistakes they've learned valuable lessons from. They have met many wonderful people and found that many people come to Blue Circle to see and visit with them when they eat. She enjoys meeting and getting to know the people. She wouldn't change a thing.

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John Dabbs/Photographer

Expansion

They aren't looking to expand too much at present, but they have managed to increase their business substantially. They've held multiple JEEP JAVA events, Car Shows, and Bike Nights and they've been well received by the community.

They've seen an increasing number of patrons coming from the Knoxville on weekends, and have been asked about opening a store there. As with any small business, it takes a true hands-on approach to help it grow and thrive. They do not see that happening in the future. They are considering a Blue Circle Food Truck possibly, and it could operate it in Knoxville.

As for me, I'm happy they are running things as they are. They've truly brought this business back from the brink - and I hope they'll keep it humming along for many years to come. I look forward to bringing my own grandkids here too someday.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Johnson City, TN
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