Living on the coast of Alabama in a town called Geiger, Morris and Cora Hundley would soon bring history and traditions to Chattanooga. Their infant daughter, Marguerite Ruth, became a Chattanoogan but would also go off to see the world before coming back here to found a landmark restaurant on Market Street.
“Dad operated a general store in the Tyner area, called ‘Hundley’s’,” Maggie says. “He sold food, clothing, shoes, desk materials… it was always just a fun thing. It had an old bench out front in which the old men kind of whittled on. It was kind of historical – he had it for many, many years.”
Maggie recalls, “I grew up during the Depression… my dad would go up by the railroad to hang the mail and I would go to hang it with him. The train would come along and grab it and drop the bag of mail for us.”
Maggie takes after her father in being hard-working. Her father had a little restaurant in the back that was a local hangout. Maggie’s dad took in people who were down on their luck and set up a shower in the back for them. “The TNT place was going full steam ahead during the Depression and dad made a place just for the people ….the homeless or the hobos getting off the trains… he fed them,” Maggie remembers.
“I went to high school at Tyner. I actually went to Maryville my first two years of college. I started college at 16 years old because I had started school when I was five and I skipped the third grade. I started out taking general courses - mostly chemistry - and my third year I went to UTK and finished college there. I moved to New York to do an internship in dietetics under the lady who started the whole American Dietetic Association,” Maggie relays.
In 1917 the American Dietetic Association in Cleveland, Ohio, was founded by a visionary group of women - led by Lenna F. Cooper. “That was just one of the best things that happened to me as a young person to get to be under her supervision,” Maggie testifies.
The American Dietetic Association officially changed its name in January 2012 to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“When I finished my internship, World War II was going on and they needed dieticians. I went ahead and enlisted in the military at age 21. When I first went in, I was under the civil service but then they decided to make all of us officers to give us some kind of title. I was a first lieutenant. I went overseas with a big hospital built basically from the Mayo Clinic. It was a 1,000-bed hospital. There were three of us who were sent to this hospital. Our first unit was in England,” Maggie recalls.
“As soon as we got that hospital going and they were building up to go into France, they brought a new unit in and we went over right after - with the ships, almost to D-Day. We lived out on the beaches in our little pup tents for weeks. As soon as they built the railroad to be able to move people, equipment and other things, we were put on a train. We started out not knowing where we were going to end up, but I can remember it was one of those things where you lived out of your helmet for about a week or so as you were on the train,” Maggie says.
With the war going on, sudden changes and uncertainties were adversities that Maggie had to face.
“We went up to the steam engine after it had stopped - to get some hot water to wash our faces. We lived on K-rations, of course. We ended up in Reims, France at Reims Hospital. The Germans left so hurriedly that they had left patients in the hospital - so we had them.”
Maggie illustrates, “There was an underground walkway in between buildings. They had some straw beds that these guys were on. We found food and supplies left in the store room. It was just a time when you didn’t know what was going to happen.”.
“(General) Patton was right in front of us and he was going so fast that most all of the areas where they would put food, supplies, or any depots he was taking everything as fast as it came,” Maggie insists.
“We would have to get farmers to bring in food on horses and buggies. Although we managed to get the equipment needed - they had been pretty basic there, so as we got things going, we were able to take American troops in.
“I can remember what was left in their store room. It was some bulgur and some canned peas and carrots. We were there for about eight months to get it running and then we moved on to Verdun,” Maggie says. “Verdun was kind of the ‘last stance’. We were there in a very primitive condition and we took over a French Army training camp.”
Maggie recalls the scene as if it were just yesterday.
“The buildings were in a semi-circle and were four stories high, with no electricity or running water. Everything had to be carried down – food, waste… everything. Our stoves were just field stoves that we had to use. We had some epidemics there and we had 10,000 patients trying to feed them with the type of food we could get. To keep the stoves running, I had some German POWs assigned to the kitchen who were such a big help. They could make little parts to keep them running,” Maggie notes.
The hospital was awarded two battle stars while Maggie was in Verdun. She has two battle stars on a ribbon. “We were going to be moved as a unit to the China-Burma-India Theater because the war in Europe was finished. They still were fighting Japan in the Far East. They had us slated to be on the boat; we were leaving to go back and they dropped the bomb,” Maggie accounts.
“It still gives me chills because we turned around the boat. We went in, turned around and went back to the Dover, N.Y., area. That ended everything.”
“They had a system,” Maggie states, “if you had so many points you could get your discharge and leave – which I did. In traveling with this unit, I was only allowed to take a backpack and a bedding roll. I took my bedding roll, my back pack and my discharge and left for Tennessee. When I came back from the war, the Choo Choo still had trains coming in there. I called to let my family know that I was home and they said they were busy, but that they’d come as soon as they could. I sat there for three hours waiting after I had been in the war for two years,” Maggie laughs.
Maggie decided to go back to New York and get on the GI bill to get her masters. She went back to school and worked at the hospital where she trained at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx.
“They did a lot of research on how diets helped with chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease,” Maggie states, “it is why Ms. Cooper was there in the first place. So we did a lot of research on what type of foods were important. I became her assistant at that university and got my masters in nutrition. That is where I met my husband Tibor - everyone knew him as Ted. He was in the Coast Guard as a dentist and had gone to dental school while I was in the military. He was on active duty stationed in New York but was reassigned to Puerto Rico so I left and went with him,” Maggie states.
“I had a wonderful husband, a loving, sweet man. I have great memories and we had a great life together. Those days were so exciting! Back when they were getting ready to move his unit overseas you could go into New York to a movie theater and see… Danny Kaye, Bob Hope… anybody who was anybody. When we were stationed in Cape May, New Jersey, we could go into New York and see all kinds of plays - my husband especially loved musicals,” Maggie says of her late husband.
She had her first child when she was 29 years old. Her son, Frank, was born in Puerto Rico. “He is a physician now. He was in the military and retired at Walter Reid Army Hospital that closed recently and now they are in Bethesda, Md., where he is on staff,” Maggie says proudly.
“My second child was Jonathan – he died since we have been here working at the restaurant. He was working at TVA. I think everyone knew Jon. He went downtown and went to all the hot spots; he would come here and was like a night host for us. It hasn’t been the same without him. He was so great. He was such a ‘people person’,” Maggie relates.
"Susan was born in Atlanta. We then went to Japan and then we did a three-year tour in Biloxi." It was in Mississippi where Maggie had her youngest child, Sally. She recalls a certain irony in finding an obstetrician. “The physician who took care of me and had delivered Sally was the navigator who dropped the bomb over Hiroshima. He was on the Enola Gay - the first plane that carried the bomb. From Biloxi we went to the Azores, which was very beautiful and nice. We were far out in the ocean - nothing but the wind and the waves for two years.”
Her family then moved to California, finally bringing on retirement for her husband. Maggie worked for the state as a registered dietician at one of the state hospitals. “When he retired my mother was in Tennessee alone so we came back here to take care of her. I worked as a staff dietician for the state and traveled the Southeast part of the state,” Maggie says.
It was during her time there that she started the WIC program. “That was a very exciting time. I hired a few other dieticians to help me run the program."
She says, “Susan had graduated from college in California, worked her way through school and attended the Culinary Institute in New York to become a chef. Sally finished high school and went to UTC and worked here at different food places… this drove us all to 212!”
Sally wanted to find a small place but couldn’t find anything that she wanted. The old Meyers Business Machine building came up for sale. Maggie said, “We bought it and tore it down and we ended up with various environmental problems - it took us almost three years to open,” she recalls.
“Susan had been working in Atlanta and came up here to help us get started. After I retired from the state, I had done some outside counseling at hospitals. I continued that until Susan felt that she needed a little more help. So I quit everything and came here,” Maggie says.
“We all put in money to start it - Frank, Jon, Susan, Sally and myself. It is family owned. When we opened in 1992, I started doing the in-house bookkeeping and tried to help them keep everything working. Through the years we have had a lot of employees come and go. When we lost our last baker, Sally and Susan said, ‘Let’s try doing it ourselves.’ I started doing the baking and in the end I do most of it, but I still do the in-house bookkeeping and pay the bills,” Maggie maintains.
At 91 how does Maggie have the energy for it all?
“I have always eaten well - knew to eat the right things… but the big part is to try to get enough sleep. I enjoy going home and reading the paper and relaxing but to stay busy having something like this keeps you lively and interested in life,” Maggie relates.
When 212 first opened there was nothing else around. The aquarium was being built but it was not yet opened. The streets and the sidewalks were torn up. “We had boards at times, to get people in the restaurant. They tore up the sewers twice. One time,” Maggie recalls, “Mayor Littlefield put out a notice for people not to come down unless they had to. I wrote him a note back and I said, ‘does that mean I don’t have to pay my property taxes while this is going on? If you don’t want people to come downtown, I can’t exist’. That wasn’t a very smart statement for him to make,” Maggie laughs.
“Big River was just an old car barn. There was nothing else - no food place for people to eat so when the aquarium did open we were just covered up. I didn’t think we did a very good job at first because you can’t really try to get open, get organized and get the right people in the right positions to get it all started when it is so hectic. Once they started building and bringing in some other eateries - TG Fridays and the Aquarium had built a food place - it grew. Big River and Hennen’s sat in our place and planned Big River… it was kind of like pioneer days getting started,” Maggie remembers.
Did you know it would be this successful?
“No-o-o-o-o…” she grins, well- pleased. “Most of my life’s work was in clinics and hospitals – that wasn’t the type of food we were going to have here - so right off the very get go - it has been a learning experience. Sally wanted to recycle everything. We started recycling from the very beginning and we supported local growers from the beginning - they came to us… people working at Unum. They’d come in and bring different vegetables and stuff that Susan just loved,” Maggie attests.
“Buying local is so much tastier. We had a pig farmer that would take the food from the tables and would feed his pigs. That is also a part in our recycling,” she says.
Frank, Maggie’s oldest son, once said that people had left a job or stayed at a job because they wanted to be where Maggie was and to be part of the team where she was working. “I’ve been lucky,” Maggie attests, “I have been healthy and always ready to go. Some waitresses that are barely in their twenties will say, that they are too tired… and I say, ‘when I was your age… I was in the war! I had no time to sleep,” Maggie quips.
What would you say to a young Maggie today?
“The world is so amazing. Don’t have a closed mind. Always think that there are better things ahead. Take advantage of all the things offered to you - and just go!”
How would someone describe you?
“The ol’ lady did it all”, Maggie chuckles. “What else would it be?” she asked of her daughter Susan who came to sit down. “Well, Frank McDonald said it best - when he said that most people who turn 70 are sitting on their porch rocker - and here she opened a restaurant.”
Susan laughs, “She was the catalyst for that. When Sally had first talked about it, she had talked about a lot of things - like making cheese or building a house… but mom is the one that came down here, offered cash and everybodys’ lives changed forever. She is the one that can make anything happen.”