This month marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of a small Chattanooga product that has enjoyed big success – the Krystal hamburger.
On Oct. 24, 1932, the nation’s first Krystal restaurant opened in a small building at the southwest corner of Seventh and Cherry streets in downtown Chattanooga. In the decades since, millions of people have enjoyed the taste of cooked onions and burgers in a small steamed bun.
Founders Rodolph Blevins Davenport Jr. and Joseph Glenn Sherrill had opened the first Krystal at a time when Americans were starting to feel the negative effects of the Great Depression. Mr. Davenport, who was only 26 years old, was vice president of the family-owned Davenport Hosiery Mills. Mr. Sherrill, 27, was a teller at First National Bank on Eighth Street.
So, in their jobs, they both likely became aware of the economic plight many Chattanoogans faced, and they wanted to develop an inexpensive product that most people could afford, even in the worst of economic times. They also knew everyone had to eat.
Shortly before the restaurant opened, a photograph and accompanying article appeared in the Chattanooga newspaper. It said, “An unusual sandwich shop, the frame of which is shown above, is being put up at Seventh and Cherry streets. The sandwich shop will be called the Krystal, and it will be open for business next week, according to J. Glenn Sherrill, who will manage it.”
The name for the restaurant came from Mr. Davenport’s wife, Mary McGee Davenport, while she and her husband were driving down Lookout Mountain and she noticed a lawn ornament that resembled a crystal ball. Officials also thought the name might evoke images of a crystal clean restaurant.
For uniqueness, it was called Krystal instead of Crystal.
According to old histories, Mr. Davenport first met Mr. Sherrill while Mr. Sherrill worked at the Fountain Square Pharmacy across Georgia Avenue from the County Courthouse. In 1932, Mr. Sherrill resided in the now-razed Richmond Apartments near Fourth Street and Georgia Avenue, while the Davenports lived at 1105 E. Brow Road on Lookout Mountain.
The original Krystal buildings were smaller and different from those of today. The structures had actually been designed by local architect Gordon Smith, who was also a financial partner in the business.
The buildings were manufactured in sections of porcelain enamel in Chicago and shipped to Chattanooga or wherever.
The founders apparently had plans from the start to open several Krystals, as one at Main and Market streets opened not long after the one on Cherry Street. Other early restaurants were at 116 Chickamauga Ave. in Rossville, 908 Georgia Ave. and 531 Market St.
The oldest Krystal still at the same site – although in a different building – is the one on Cherokee Boulevard.
Atlanta was the first city outside Chattanooga in which a Krystal was opened. Often, a Krystal restaurant would be located in the first floor of a large office building.
In 1952, Krystal built a larger office building at the site of its flagship Cherry Street Krystal and continued to operate a restaurant there until the end of 1993.
Krystals were always sit-down restaurants set up like a diner. Through the early 1970s, a customer would enter a Krystal, sit down at a stool and order his or her meal from a waitress at the counter. She would then shout out something like “4 Krystals on 3,” telling the cook she needed four Krystal hamburgers for stool No. 3. The food would be served on real china.
One would also find plenty of signs telling customers not to tip the waitresses.
By the early 1970s, Krystal became more like McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants of that time in that customers would order at a counter and carry their own food back to their seats.
But Krystal was considered a trendsetter in a variety of other ways. These included the prefab structures in the early days, allowing the customer to take the food home in sacks, and the seemingly constant introduction of new products, including fried chicken, cake doughnuts, Chili Pups, Krystal Chiks, and the breakfast Scrambler.
The restaurant is also relatively unique in offering free wi-fi for laptop computers.
The original founders unfortunately did not live to see many of these innovative changes. Mr. Davenport died in 1943 of a heart attack suffered at his fifth-floor corporate office in the Volunteer Building. Mr. Sherrill, who later moved into Mr. Davenport’s East Brow Road residence on the mountain, died there in 1961 at the age of 56, also of a heart attack.
All the Krystal restaurants were closed on the day of Mr. Sherrill’s funeral.
Although the two leaders died young, their concept of offering tasty burgers at an appealing price continues to live on 75 years later.