The venerable breakfast joint closed after 50 years in 2016 leaving behind a void in the small town’s economy and culture, and also leaving behind some degree of uncertainty over the future of the building and the branding.
But after a recent change of heart and a fortuitous pairing years in the making, visitors to the valley will soon once again be able to experience the heapin’ helpings of homey charm and hash brown casserole known to generations of visitors from across the region and the globe.
‘We just had to try’
The story of how Joey’s Pancake House came to be is about as random as any other.
“My husband Joey and I were coming through Maggie Valley on our way to Virginia to look at a small business and we had friends that live here and we stopped,” said Brenda O’Keefe from the cozy dining room of her Maggie Valley home.
That fateful stop was the start of a half-century presence in the valley for the O’Keefes as the owners of Joey’s Pancake House, the very caricature of a classic American diner with a line out the door and walls decked with lore.
“Immediately this town welcomed us,” O’Keefe said. “And the rest is history.”
When Joey’s opened in the mid-1960s, Maggie Valley was a very different place. Tourists from across the region packed mountaintop amusement park Ghost Town in the Sky and snatched up similarly western-themed hotel rooms along a five-mile strip of Soco Road that could take two hours to traverse by car during the busy season.
The restaurant became a destination in and of itself, especially for those intrepid families that embarked on ritualistic summer car trips.
“I would say that for the 50 years I’ve had people eat there, we’ve had maybe four generations of families, from all over the country,” she said. “We’ve always had those people that came back no matter what and we had so much support from the local community, the region.”
Even the passing of Joey himself in 2001 couldn’t stop the momentum the establishment had built; Brenda actually increased length of the season and worked harder than ever, as Ghost Town sputtered through fits and starts before closing permanently in 2015.
“I always had in my mind that I was going to make it to 50 years. Whatever it took, I would try to make that mark,” she said.
And she did; but right around that time, health concerns forced her hand. O’Keefe closed the restaurant June 13, 2016, after an emotional announcement that elicited equal parts gratitude and disappointment.
After a special “reunion” event that drew friends, family and former employees from across the globe, Brenda put the building up for sale.
One thing that wasn’t for sale was the simple yet iconic Joey’s branding; concerned about new owners maintaining the standards customers had come to expect, she refused to entertain the even the notion of a Joey’s without him, or herself.
“I’m sure a lot of that was emotional,” she said. “It was a very emotional time for me, but as the time has passed on I’ve realized that to make it a viable sale it would be crazy not to let them have the name.”
Brenda’s change of heart didn’t mean that just anybody could buy it, however.
“I just couldn’t find the right person. I had a lot of people over the years want to buy it, but I didn’t think they were the right fit for my business,” she said.
While entertaining offers, Brenda recalled a couple she’d known that was also in the restaurant business.
“I asked them over the years how they operated their restaurant, and the most important thing to them was what they did for their employees,” Brenda said. “So for me, I thought this is what we need. Whether my employees will be working there or not, those were just the kind of people that I wanted.”
Those people are Roy and Sandra Milling, owners of a 24-hour Lexington, Kentucky, establishment that caters to the college crowd.
“This has always felt like home to us, just beautiful and so peaceful,” said Sandra. “We were saddened when the place closed down, having come here every time we’re in town — we have family [that] lives here — so when this place closed, you could feel the whole presence of the valley was closed down. Being in the restaurant business as we are, we just had to try to get it.”
And get it they did, along with the intellectual property and the mail-order pancake mix business. What the Millings also get is a revered institution at the spiritual core of a once-dwindling tourist town that now appears to be on the upswing.
Despite the languishing Ghost Town in the Sky property remaining on the market for around $6 million, new businesses like Elevated Mountain Distilling, a proposed major chain hotel and a church in the former Eaglenest entertainment venue complement Maggie Valley stalwarts Stompin’ Ground and Wheels Through Time.
In an economic sense, those venues all feed off each other, and spill over onto each other; throwing arguably the best-known one back into the mix later this month — with the endorsement of the formidable Brenda O’Keefe — means meeting some pretty longstanding expectations.
“There’s no reason to change anything,” Sandra said. “There’s no need to change anything. Everything is as it should be, and with all the families that have been coming to the Valley throughout the years, and the townspeople, they know this as their gathering place.”
In an era of celebrity chefs, fine dining and fusion cuisine, it’s the sense of community — across not only space and time but also now death and retirement and the passage of a torch — that kept a simple breakfast joint named after an Irish guy from Philly open at all.
“When you find one,” Sandra said, “you don’t want to let go.”