“It is leaf season, but still all summer long it’s been what it is,” says Dwight Williamson, kitchen manager and at 40 the youngest son of owners Ray and Teresa Williamson.
The smell of home cooking swells like a wave immediately upon opening the door to the restaurant’s homey wood-paneled dining room, the buffet line stocked with freshly made turkey and dressing, roast beef and pudding. It’s country cooking done right, tried-and-true recipes honed to perfection over the course of 33 years.
“We do everything the hard way,” Dwight said. “When it comes to cooking, it ain’t no shortcuts. You start with the best product you can buy, and you go from there.”
Those are lessons Dwight has been learning since childhood. He was just a kid when his parents started Granny’s Kitchen in 1984, his growing-up years lived to the rhythm of the restaurant business.
“We had four little kids, and I quit my job and he (Ray) quit his job, and we didn’t really have sense enough to realize we could have failed at it,” Teresa said of the decision to become entrepreneurs.
The opportunity arose to lease the business location, which the family now owns, and the Williamsons figured they’d give it a try. Ray had been cooking professionally since age 14, earning a degree in hotel and restaurant management from AB Tech, and Teresa, who is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, had started helping with her grandmother’s restaurant — the old Sequoyah Restaurant downtown — when she was 11 years old, though her professional background is in bookkeeping. They were restaurant people, through and through, so they figured they might as well own one.
A team effort
It was hard at the beginning. The restaurant was open seven days a week, from about 7 in the morning until 8 or 9 at night. The family had a house, but they often stayed overnight in a little apartment inside the restaurant. If they were awake, it seemed, they were working. As far as time off, vacations pretty much had to be in the winter, when business was slower.
“We used to have to pull our kids out of school to take them places,” Teresa recalls.
Over time, things stabilized. They started closing one day a week — Mondays — to give themselves and their employees a chance to breathe. The apartment where the family once spent so many nights is now gone, transformed into a salad room. And with her kids all grown and active in the business themselves, Ray and Teresa no longer have to spend so much time at the restaurant.
“I had hoped they would see what it was like to work like a dog and they would get a good education and they would do something else, nine-to-five and holidays off and stuff,” Teresa said. “They all got good educations, but they’re right there with us, thank God.”
Granny’s Kitchen is probably as true to the definition of a family business as it’s possible to be. In addition to Ray and Teresa, 11 other family members work in various aspects of the business — two sons, a daughter, sons- and daughters-in-law and grandchildren.
“People kind of look at us wondering how we can all hang out together all the time, but we manage to do it,” Teresa laughed.
“Our family gets along very well,” Dwight added. “We do everything together. Any event, we’re all there unless we’re here. Any family function, we’re all together.”
The key to family harmony in the midst of a fast-paced industry, Teresa said, is having a thick skin and a willingness to work.
“There’s no such thing up here as, ‘It’s not my job,’” she said.
Everyone has a job title, but in reality everyone has done all the jobs at some point along the way. Dwight, for instance, started out as a kid rolling silverware, back when the family stayed so many nights in the attached apartment and the children would wander in and out of the restaurant when they got home from school. His brother would bus tables, and his sister would run the cash register. Though cooking is his passion, in the years since he’s tried his hand at most everything else that might need doing.
There’s no pointing at one single person to credit the success of Granny’s Kitchen. It’s a team effort, all the way. That’s a tradition that starts with Teresa and Ray themselves.
“You have to rely on each other,” Teresa said. “I think with my strengths and his (Ray’s) strengths, I’m able to kind of think outside the box sometimes and develop new ways to do things. As far as his goes, his is all about the work and the food. And he’s real laid-back. I’m not so laid-back.”
Teresa describes her husband as “the hardest-working person I know,” a “people pleaser” who knows the food business inside and out. Teresa is a hard worker herself but concentrates more on the bookkeeping and paperwork, making sure that the scene is set to support the hard work of all those involved in Granny’s Kitchen’s success.
If Granny’s Kitchen were a movie, then the credits would feature an endless reel of supporting roles played by the countless people who have patronized the business over the years.
“Our locals have been our advertisers,” Teresa said. “When we got that place we didn’t have anything. We had to borrow money to make the down payment on the lease. We probably had $300 in the bank. But that’s just the thing is we couldn’t afford to advertise. We couldn’t do a whole lot of stuff, so it was just our local people and word of mouth that’s helped us out.”
Developing a hallmark of friendly service and appreciation of local patrons has proven a winning business strategy, but it also stems from a belief in the power of a tasty meal or genuine smile to change the trajectory of a person’s day.
“You may be the only person that has the opportunity to make them feel better that day,” Teresa said. “So be as nice and kind and friendly as you can. You can’t please everybody, but you can always try to make people feel better.”
That concoction of delicious food, homey atmosphere and friendly service has created something that resonates with locals and visitors alike. Granny’s is a popular lunch spot for people in Cherokee, and Dwight has no problem listing off various customers who routinely drive from much longer distances to get some of his roast turkey and dressing. There’s lady who lived out past Hendersonville and would drive two hours every Wednesday just to have some roast beef, until she got sick last year and could no longer make the trip. And there’s another guy who lives out in Haywood County’s Jonathan Creek area and comes over almost every day for a meal.
For many of these folks, familiarity is the draw. Though Granny’s staff has grown from about 15 in the early years to 48 now, many of the same employees have stayed on year after year, and even decade after decade. The menu, too, has seen little change, though not for lack of effort.
“We’ve tried to change the menu a couple of times, and it’s almost caused a revolt,” Teresa laughed.
So, Granny’s Kitchen has kept to tradition, giving the people what they want — the comfort and stable familiarity that most people expect to find in their grandmother’s kitchen.
And Teresa is OK with that. Looking back at it she’s proud of the business that she, Ray and their children have built over the last three decades.
“The biggest thing is you’re only as good as the worst employees you’ve got, and we’ve got some pretty daggone good ones,” she said. “We couldn’t do anything if it wasn’t for the people that we have working, and we wouldn’t be able to keep them working if it weren’t for the people coming in the front door. To be able to be born and raised in Cherokee, and to be able to make my living there and give back what I can to the community — that’s about the best you can hope for.”