John Shearer: Remembering When Now-50-Year-Old Wendy’s, Captain D’s Restaurants Came To Chattanooga

Monday, December 16, 2019 - by John Shearer

If you happen to frequent fast-food restaurants – and have not given over completely to eating only organic veggies – you might have noticed that at least two chains are celebrating their 50th anniversaries in 2019.


They are Captain D’s, which mentions on its signs in front of its restaurants that it was established in 1969, and Wendy’s, which has put the date recently on its cups and possibly other items.


To put this milestone in fast-food vernacular, it is the golden anniversary for chains known for their golden-fried fish and hushpuppies, and golden French fries, respectively.


But in 1969, Chattanooga area residents would not have been familiar with either chain unless they happened to visit the Nashville area when Captain D’s was starting under a different name, or Columbus, Ohio, where the first Wendy’s was located.


That is because neither chain came to Chattanooga until the mid-1970s, after they were well established and moving into numerous cities and markets.


The first of the two to open in the Chattanooga area was Captain D’s, which opened at 3516 Dayton Blvd.

on Oct. 30, 1975.


Captain D’s had actually first opened on Aug. 15, 1969, in the Nashville suburb of Donelson as Mr. D’s Fish and Hamburgers. It was started by Shoney’s franchisee Raymond L. Danner Sr., and the restaurant name came from the first letter of his last name.


The son of German immigrants who settled in Louisville, Ky., Mr. Danner, who lived until 2008, once said he did not run toward being successful but away from poverty.


By 1975, when the first Chattanooga restaurant opened, the name had been changed to Captain D’s Fish and Hamburgers to give it more of a fishing ship head’s name. Involved in the local opening were such Shoney’s South officials as E.D. Latimer of Chattanooga and Harry Thurman, who held the distinction of being the first manager of any Captain D’s in the Chattanooga area.


Officials at the time announced that a Shoney’s that was part of the same umbrella of restaurants would be built next door, a joint venture that would also be duplicated in the Chattanooga area at the foot of Lookout Mountain and in Fort Oglethorpe.


At the time, Shoney’s South officials also owned the Hungry Fisherman sit-down seafood restaurant on Ringgold Road.


The second Captain D’s in Chattanooga was evidently at 3821 Brainerd Road and opened about two years or so later. By 1980, a fifth Captain D’s had opened at 6721 Ringgold Road, with more on the way.


Within a few years after the move to Chattanooga, the hamburger part of the restaurant name was also dropped when the chain began focusing strictly on seafood and sides. It also later began offering baked alternatives with the fish menu.


But for me, it is hard not to at least occasionally enjoy a hot piece of fried fish dipped in tartar sauce with sides of hush puppies, sweet cole slaw, and a few of the fried pieces of breading as a treat when I am not counting calories. And, of course, you have to top it off with a sweet iced tea with lemon.


One step that Captain D’s has taken and seems to be ahead of many restaurants is that it tries to limit the plastic waste. Reusable and washable plates and utensils are provided for customers dining in, and sauces and drinks are generally served in paper form, not with plastic.


The original former Captain D’s on Dayton Boulevard has been greatly remodeled into an Advance Financial loan facility, while the former Shoney’s next door – which has changed little -- is scheduled to be the new location of the Red Bank Mojo Burrito.


The first Wendy’s in the United States was opened on Nov. 15, 1969, by Dave Thomas at 257 E. Broad St. in Columbus, Ohio. Adopted at a young age, founder Mr. Thomas had moved around the country with his adoptive father, Rex Thomas, and actually worked for the Regas family restaurant in downtown Knoxville at about age 12 toward the end of World War II.


He left following a dispute, but later positively credited the experience gained there, and Regas later hung a picture of him as a successful adult in the lobby of the restaurant.


Before starting Wendy’s, Mr. Thomas became a key official with Kentucky Fried Chicken, offering key advice to Col. Harland Sanders on several occasions.


He opened the restaurant in Columbus in an effort to provide his customers with fast and hearty food in a family setting. It was named for his young daughter, Melinda Lou, who had trouble pronouncing her name and went by the nickname of Wendy, which was easier for her to say.


Mr. Thomas’ second restaurant in Columbus had a drive-through window, and it was considered the first restaurant of its kind in the country with the modern drive-through window concept, although drive-in and curb service had been popular for years.


When the first Chattanooga Wendy’s opened in 1976 at 5200 Brainerd Road, it was the first quick-service restaurant in Chattanooga to offer drive-through service as well. And within weeks or months, other chains began to take notice and converted their Chattanooga restaurants to offering drive-through service as well.


The local Wendy’s restaurants were opened by local franchisee Ed Tenent, who at the time lived with his wife, Eunice, at the Lakeshore Apartments off Big Ridge, according to the city directory.


The restaurant when it first opened in Chattanooga was initially called Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburgers and was known for its “hot ‘n’ juicy” advertising slogan.


Online stories say the square shape of the never-frozen hamburger patty was chosen so that a customer could see the fresh meat and also that the chain literally did not cut corners. However, in later years as some began to wonder if Wendy’s patties looked too processed, officials changed the shape of the burger slightly, one story said.


The second Wendy’s in Chattanooga was apparently at 4704 Rossville Blvd. and opened within a few months or so of the Brainerd one.


By 1978, Wendy’s eateries were also found at 3104 S. Broad St., 1868 Dayton Blvd. and 4516 Hixson Pike. The one on Dayton Boulevard had opened in early 1977 and was known for its water feature in the front fed by a natural spring, while the Hixson Pike one featured a woman, Mrs. Deborah Robertson, as its manager when that was not overly commonplace.


1978 was also an unusual year for Wendy’s in that vicious rumors of unknown origin had started in Chattanooga and spread around the country regarding the ingredients used in the meat. Wendy’s officials had to come to Chattanooga to assure the media and public, and the firm said business had temporarily been hurt. Other fast-food chains around Chattanooga also briefly had their business affected before the rumors were found to be totally unfounded and untrue.


Also that year, Wendy’s sued the Nashville-based Judy’s chain for idea stealing. Judy’s restaurant had also been located in Chattanooga, including in a still-standing building on Hixson Pike near Krystal and the Highway 153 intersection.


That same year, Mr. Tenent sold the local Wendy’s restaurants to Johnston Coca-Cola Bottling Co. out of Cleveland, which in 1985 sold them to Southern Hospitality Corp.


By 1982, some 14 Wendy’s restaurants were in the immediate Chattanooga area and were undergoing their first remodeling, with the one on South Broad Street the first one. Salad bars became popular aspects of them about that time, and they later expanded their menu offerings to include items like chicken and baked potatoes.


When I originally started eating at Wendy’s in the 1970s, I would get the single with cheese and French fries. I then later switched to a single with cheese and a salad bar. Then I went through a period where I got the chicken sandwich and the loaded baked potato.


Now I usually get the single with cheese and chili – with crackers and one pack of hot sauce, please!. And if I really feel like splurging, I will also get a chocolate Frosty!


While a number of area Wendy’s have taken on sleeker looks similar to McDonald’s and gone to red and blue coloring, the one on Brainerd Road at least several days ago when I was last by there still had the old-fashioned appearance. And the sign still had the yellow-colored “Old-Fashioned Hamburgers” slogan on it as well.


As a result, one can still go by there and remember those days of the 1970s, when eating a Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburger was a new experience for Chattanoogans.

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