When two senior adult men decided to open an abandoned country store, formerly the J.B. Warren & Son Grocery, as a church-related community restaurant in July 2021, some were surprised.
After all, Turk Warren, age 98, and Ray Ellington, 86, had never owned or managed a restaurant.
But this didn’t stop the two entrepreneurs from a new venture.
The name, the Fork Restaurant, comes from the phrase, “Keep your fork, the best is yet to come,” the men said.
Some 10 miles east of Brownsville, Tennessee, the restaurant is thriving. Instead of selling cheese and bologna sandwiches as first planned, the Fork is now a full-fledged establishment open six days a week.
The menu changes daily and includes breakfast biscuits, sandwiches, omelets and more. Lunch includes sandwiches, burgers and “stuffed taters.” Friday night is catfish dinner, and Saturday night is steak. Sunday’s buffet always includes chicken and dressing.
Bringing people back
But it’s more than delicious food that brings people back to the Fork. It has become a gathering place in the rural community.
One thing Warren and Ellington hoped would happen has been accomplished: The restaurant is bringing churches and the community together. With Woodland Baptist Church just down the road, many members enjoy Sunday lunch together. Union Grove United Methodist also is nearby and Zion Baptist is only a few miles away. And people who attend other churches from across Haywood County come to enjoy the Fork.
Ellington shared a story of a couple from California who planned to move back to Brownsville in a few months. Looking for a restaurant that offered good Southern food, someone recommended the old Warren county store. The man, who grew up in the area, said, “Yes, I know where it’s located, but that store has been closed for years.”
“Imagine his surprise to find the country store open and turned into a thriving restaurant,” Ellington laughed.
“When people come in, it’s also a time to share my faith and invite them to church,” Ellington added.
Large tables provide space for neighbors to gather, laugh, talk and get to know one another. And before they eat, someone usually asks the blessing.
“The food is delicious, but communicating with our friends and neighbors — well, we haven’t had this in our community for a long time — if ever,” one customer said.
Farmers in the community drift in about noon, enjoy a hearty meal and take box lunches back to those working in the fields. One farmer was overheard saying, “The Fork provides a place to relax, rest a bit and enjoy a healthy meal. If the restaurant wasn’t close by, we would eat a cold sandwich brought from home. It’s too far to drive into Brownsville for lunch.”
“Besides, being in the fields, we are dusty and tired,” the farmer added. “We’re grateful for this place nearby. God is good. He provides.”
Because the Friday night catfish dinner and the Saturday night steak are so popular, Chef Allen Phillips advises people to arrive early. It’s not unusual to sell out of both.
Misty Walls, Phillips’ daughter, serves customers with a smile and makes suggestions from the menu.
“We can seat approximately 70 people,” she said, adding, “church and civic groups frequent the restaurant throughout the week.”
Renewal of former ties
Randall Kellough, pastor of Woodland Baptist, appreciates the way the community has responded to the Fork.
“Many are the stories of days gone by of old country stores in the rural communities, how they served as the gathering spot. The Fork Restaurant is a renewal of the former ties.
“It fosters chances to sit and talk as families, and members from different churches frequent the tables,” Kellough said. “It is a gathering for prayer on Saturday every other month, with a hope that the Lord will rekindle the old virtues of righteousness.”