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From Pal’s kitchen to church wedding: the true hidden gem of Appalachia

Updated: Apr 4

Photo: Lakie Derrick

Truthfully, when thinking of the hidden gems of Appalachia, one cannot help but think of East Tennessee with its brightly colored mountains, authentic sounds of bluegrass, deep-rooted faith and most importantly, the unique eatery of Pal’s Sudden Service.


First founded in 1956 in downtown Kingsport, Tennessee, Pal’s quickly became the go-to restaurant for many people within the area.


Today, Pal’s has become the symbolic extended family member of those within Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, providing a variety of “firsts” for numerous people — first Frenchie fries, first milkshakes, first jobs, and first dates.


For Harold Derrick, Pal’s was most of those things.


"It was my first job and kindly like a family place," said Harold Derrick. "They treated you good."


Harold began working for the Lynn Garden Drive Pal’s location in 1963 when he was just 15 years old. He worked for $.50 an hour and manned virtually every station within the restaurant during his time as an employee there.


Back then, the menu was much smaller and the uniforms were fancier. Boys wore black dress pants, a white collared shirt and a black bow tie, while girls wore a white dress similar to vintage nursing uniforms.


In 1956, the menu featured Frenchie fries and milkshakes for $.15, chipped ham for $.29 and Coca Cola’s for $.10. Other menu items were chili burgers, sauce burgers and the infamous Pal’s hotdog.


Despite the menu’s smaller size, these staple items withstood the test of time and are still sold by the restaurant today.


Photo: Lakie Derrick

"You had to count it all up in your head," said Sue Bullock Thacker, a former Pal’s coworker of Derrick, and his now sister-in-law of almost 50 years. "There was no pad and pencil; there was just a little piece of paper that said what the tax rate was. That was the cash register."


Often, when the Lynn Garden Pal’s had too many customers and not enough workers, Sue’s sister, Dinah Bullock, would be sent from the original Pal’s location in downtown Kingsport to help the workers at Lynn Garden.


This, for Harold and Dinah, was the beginning of their most important Pal’s “first” — finding their first and only true love.


"I think he was hogtied and married before he even knew it," said Bullock Thacker.


Harold recalled asking to take Dinah home one night after work, but she said she would have to call her mom first. Laughing, he remembered how Betty Bullock, the girls’ mom, had agreed, but only if he brought her “straight home.”


Throughout the trio's time at Pal’s, they were able to create speciality shakes like the orange creamsicle. But most interestingly, they were able to witness Mrs. Bullock begin working at Pal’s as a hotdog maker, only to quickly become dayshift manager then manager of the Lynn Garden franchise.


Even then, Pal’s provided a family atmosphere that afforded its workers the chance to learn and move up within the business.


The Lynn Garden dayshift crew not only enjoyed their work, but they enjoyed each other's company, too. In the summer of 1965, they had made plans to spend the day at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee, but only two workers actually showed – Harold and Dinah. Little did they know that would be the beautiful beginning of a very happy couple.


The pair spent the day riding peddle boats and enjoying the park. Even though Harold had not realized that Dinah was the one for him after the first date, someone did.


"Well, actually, I asked Dinah, in our later years, when she had made up in her mind when she wanted to get married, and she said 'the first date,'" said Harold Derrick.


Photo: Lakie Derrick

Needless to say, the couple never stopped seeing each other after that first date.


The pair went on to court for two years before becoming Mr. and Mrs. Harold Derrick on December 14, 1967. From the little love story that began in the Pal’s kitchen came three kids — one daughter and two sons, as well as fifteen grandchildren — two boys and thirteen girls.


Holidays, graduations, birthdays, vacations and big moments are still spent together according to Harold Derrick. All of this came because of a little restaurant.


Tragically, on April 4, 2020, Dinah Derrick passed away suddenly, leaving Harold and the family without their beloved matriarch. Though holidays, ball games, band concerts, Sunday church service and most everything else look different without her, they continue to do things together, make new traditions, and honor the memory of their wife, Mom, and Mammaw.


The story of Pal’s is the story of Appalachian ingenuity.


Appalachians create things, but more importantly, they create things that leave a lasting impression on their community.


Pal Barger took a chance on his dream, and in doing that, a regional fast food chain was created, one that became the place to go to celebrate a win, cry over a loss, begin the first day of summer break or begin the first day back to school.


Or, to Sue Bullock Thacker, Pal’s became the place to take a family member who had a bad day to pick out a milkshake — her “family ritual” of sorts.


For Pal’s CEO Thom Crosby, he remembers the team from the Lyn Garden location as “fun and energetic,” making his almost-daily stop at the restaurant to get a sauce burger and a chocolate shake before delivering his newspaper route a fountain of great memories.


"All of us at Pal’s are proud and excited about the experience and connections that came about because of Pal’s," said Crosby. "The stories of these connections are playfully called the ‘Pal’s alumni stories’ by the current leadership team."

         

But really, this story has been so much more than a little restaurant with a lasting legacy.


Pal’s was the catalyst to a love story that saw two people become twenty people.


That is the story of Appalachia.


Photo: Lakie Derrick

Appalachia is work ethic and hustle — the ability to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and start from nothing and become something, as we saw with Betty Bullock.


Appalachia is family-first-values. Not only was a Biblical marriage of love and sacrifice modeled to Harold and Dinah by their own parents, but these same attributes were showcased to their children and grandchildren.


"My grandparents showed up for each other, and they showed up for me," said Eden Derrick, their 17-year-old granddaughter. "Their love for each other and God has set the example I want to lead in my life."


Without question, Harold and Dinah loved each other, and their success story is attributed to their faith in Christ. They attended church every time the doors were open, and they expected the same of their children. For Harold, it is natural to thank God for bringing him his first love through his first job. Additionally, Pal’s will always hold a special place in Harold’s heart for more reason beyond it being his first job.


"Well, that was my first job, and it's where I met Dinah too, really, and that makes it pretty special," said Harold Derrick.


East Tennessee is a hidden gem within the Appalachian region. It is home to Pal's, the regional fast food chain that continues to give many people the opportunity to work — one that provides a plethora of important firsts to the community.


But, more than that, East Tennessee is home to hard-working families, faith-based values, and long-standing traditions.


The true hidden gems of Appalachia do not lie deep under the Earth waiting to be uncovered. Rather, they are hiding in plain sight — sitting in a restaurant booth, riding in the car, walking down the street. Or, in this case, working at Pal’s. Harold and Dinah Derrick showcase the true beauty of Appalachia, and their family will continue to do the same for years to come.

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