John Shearer: With Krystal Turning 90, Gordon Davenport Recalls Family Restaurant Memories

  • Friday, April 15, 2022
  • John Shearer

Many Chattanoogans over the years have enjoyed getting treated by their families or even treating themselves to the distinctive taste and aroma of onion-topped hamburgers on steamed buns from Krystal.


But for a few Chattanoogans, Krystal was the family recipe and its own kind of home cooking.

As many locals know, the Krystal chain started in Chattanooga in 1932 when Rodolph “Rody” Davenport Jr. and J. Glenn Sherrill – who were only 26 and 27, respectively – opened the first of what would be dozens of eateries, initially offering hamburgers and hot and cold drinks. 


Along the way, Krystal also became an important part of Southern business history.


The story of the company has returned to the forefront not only because it is 90 years old this year, but also because the last remaining child of the founding Davenport family died in recent weeks. On Jan. 29, Mary Davenport, who had lived in Nashville for many of her adult years and was in her early 80s, died peacefully at her home.


In connection with the disappearing tangible history, Gordon Davenport – a former Krystal executive himself and son of the late Gordon Davenport Sr. -- shared when contacted a few memories of stories he learned over the years or heard as historical anecdotes. But he added that he wished he knew more details beyond the basic information documented over the years in historical newspaper stories and general company histories.


Krystal had been started as an inexpensive and clean place to get hot food by the two men who were no doubt conscious of the humbling effects of the Great Depression on many people. With the help of architect Gordon Smith, who was also a company director, they came up with a restaurant as distinctive in appearance as the hamburgers. The small white buildings were made on the outside of porcelain enamel manufactured in Chicago. The first one was at Cherry and Seventh streets in downtown Chattanooga.


The original building was 25 feet by 50 feet and was also made of Monel style steel featuring nickel as well as Allegheny steel. Its interior equipment had been made by Mountain City Stove Co.


Rody Jr.’s wife, Mary, reportedly came up with the name Krystal to evoke the clean – or crystal clean -- image and after being inspired when she saw a crystal glass ball ornament in a neighbor’s yard. Exactly why the letter K was used instead of C does not seem to be readily accessible, unless it was to let the name stand out a little more or to add a twist. One old story said Ms. Davenport had originally thought of the name “Krystal Klean” before shortening it to Krystal. Another hints that Krystal Klean Kitchen was also initially thought of or used.


The White Castle chain, which had similar-style hamburgers, had been started in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas, and Rody Davenport Jr. had reportedly visited the chain in Chicago before starting Krystal. However, Krystal is still considered one of the pioneering hamburger fast-food chains, particularly for the South.


“Krystal developed in other cities, and it grew into an iconic Southern brand,” said Mr. Davenport, who believes the combination of cooked onions on a piece of hamburger meat with a steaming bun naturally and organically came to the founders as a winning recipe early on.


The elder Mr. Davenport and his wife had three other children besides Gordon Sr. and the recently deceased Mary – Rody Davenport III, Bobby Davenport and Jane Davenport Jansen. Mr. Rodolph Davenport Sr. unfortunately died of a heart attack at his office on the fifth floor of the Volunteer Building in August 1943 at the age of only 37.


Mr. Sherrill – who was also a very close friend with the elder Mr. Davenport -- later headed up Krystal until his death, also at a young age of only 56 in 1961. But he also provided moral support as well as business acumen to the younger Davenports during the time he was leading the restaurant.


“Mr. Glenn did a lot to help with mentoring to my dad and uncles once they were fatherless,” said Gordon Davenport. “He’s an important part of the story.”


Rody Davenport Jr.’s wife, Mary, outlived her first husband by several decades, and the younger Mr. Davenport has plenty of memories of her. “She was very kind and loved company,” he said. “She was the matriarch of the family and really ran a very open house. Friends and family were always welcome.” He added that he and the family members always enjoyed swimming in her pool.


She had been born to Mr. and Mrs. George McGee Sr. Her obituary after her death on April 8, 1986, said she was chairwoman of the Krystal Co. for 20 years, so she might have also been a little bit of a pioneering businesswoman after her husband’s early death, while also likely relying on the support of the elder Mr. Sherrill and her sons.


Later in the 1940s, she had married Robert Purse Jr., who headed the Purse advertising and printing firm. The McCallie School graduate also held such distinctions as being a World War I veteran and a graduate of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He died in late December 1969 at the age of 72. It is not clear if he or his firm helped Krystal, but there was likely some support.


For a number of years, including after her second husband’s death, Ms. Purse lived at 216 Stephenson Ave. on Lookout Mountain, old city directories say. At the time Krystal was founded, she and the elder Mr. Davenport lived at 1105 East Brow Road, also on Lookout Mountain and near where she apparently saw a crystal yard ornament.


In 1932 when the chain was started, the elder Mr. Sherrill lived at 407 Georgia Ave., Apartment A., in an apparently now-razed building near the intersection with Fourth Street. By the late 1930s, he was living at 114 Shallowford Road on the back side of Missionary Ridge near Shepherd Hills.


He no doubt was enjoying a more financially rewarding living than he had as a respected cashier at the First National Bank shortly before helping start Krystal, and it might be neat and historically important to learn how Mr. Davenport and Mr. Sherrill met and teamed up. At the time, Mr. Davenport was with the Davenport Hosiery Mills, located where the Chattanooga Times Free Press building is now, while Mr. Sherrill worked in what is now the Chattanooga Bank Building.


When the first Krystal opened, Mr. Sherrill was referred to as the manager, so Mr. Davenport was likely the primary investor but saw that Mr. Sherrill had special and admirable skills – including dependability – and would be a major asset. Mr. Sherrill also likely realized banking was a little risky during the Depression, which might have also made him not as afraid to take a risk with another business, since a lot of ventures were risky at that time.


Krystal later built a corporate headquarters on the site of the original Krystal in what was originally a two-story building, with Ms. Purse apparently providing much input into the building’s design and look. A 14-stool Krystal restaurant was uniquely also inserted in the building at the corner of Seventh and Cherry streets, and other businesses using first-floor space were on the side facing Cherry Street. The corporate offices were on the second floor with a separate entrance. 


The building was constructed by Bert Hammock, who had been Krystal superintendent of construction since 1937.


A Chattanooga News-Free Press article when the building opened on Feb. 12 – Abraham Lincoln’s birthday – in 1952 said two other men who had started with Krystal in the early days were still employed along with Glenn Sherrill. They included Vice President Robert L. Schrader and Chattanooga division manager William E. Byrd.


An elevated area with a Krystal sign sat on the top of the Seventh and Cherry corner of the office building for years, but in 1964 plans were announced to remodel the building. Selmon T. Franklin Associates had drawn up plans to add a third floor onto the structure, which was to be used for bookkeeping and accounting as well as testing products in a kitchen. The remodeled second floor would be used for executive offices. 


While the work was being done by T.U. Parks Co., Krystal had temporary office space in the old Hamilton National Bank, now First Horizon.


The remodeled building – which also featured an up-to-date IBM computer on the third floor – reopened in July 1969. They would remain there until the Krystal Building opened in 1978 on what is now M.L. King Boulevard, with the hamburger firm occupying the top floors of the later building.


The younger Mr. Davenport remembers visiting his father at the Seventh and Cherry streets building while growing up. And, of course, going to eat at the Krystal that was below the office was also fun and a little different from the typical experience of a child getting to visit his father at work.


“That was always a treat to go downtown and visit Dad and getting lunch and breakfast at the Krystal,” he recalled with a laugh.


All three sons of founder Mr. Davenport would work at Krystal, with Rody Davenport III becoming chairman after Mr. Sherrill’s passing. Bobby Davenport later left to become involved in real estate as well as Buck’s barbecue and the Central Park burger chain. Rody Sherrill, the son of Glenn Sherrill, also became a Krystal official.


The younger Mr. Davenport said he went to work for Krystal from 1995-2003 in the middle of his work career as it was becoming a public company with franchise opportunities and stayed as a partial investor for a period beyond its 1997 sale to Port Royal Holdings.


While Krystal had originally been a lunch counter type restaurant with stools for diners until the concept of ordering in a line became popular around the late 1960s or early 1970s, he noticed in his work career that a few still held on to the old counter seating in part. He remembers visiting a Krystal in Columbus, Georgia, that was still like that in the mid-1990s, he said.


He also recalls that Krystal, like other restaurants in the mid-20th century, also had car hop service like Sonic does today. He recalls going to the Cherokee Boulevard one with his maternal grandparents as a child from their home in Battery Place, and it had one. The one in Brainerd was another one, he said, adding that someone could tell by the fact their parking lots were larger than a typical Krystal.


A Chattanooga Times article from 1954 said the first two local drive-in restaurants Krystal built locally were at Cherokee Boulevard and the corner of Ringgold Road and Belvoir Avenue in East Ridge. Both restaurants were to have 34 roofed stalls, and each one uniquely had a leased telephone system installed by Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Co. This was said to be more sophisticated than the intercom system used at most drive-in restaurants at the time, and a customer could talk directly with the kitchen rather than a waiter or car hop.


These restaurants were also available for in-person dining in an air-conditioned facility with separate parking areas.


The new drive-in system had already been tried out on one in Nashville, and the restaurant in Brainerd by Germantown and Brainerd roads was to be retrofitted with drive-in equipment, the 1954 article said.


Krystal continued to expand and in 1966 opened a new restaurant at 3407 S. Broad St., where the Mitchell’s Gulf Service Station had been. It was significant in that it was to seat 48 and was to be the largest Krystal ever built. It was designed by Selmon T. Franklin Associates and built by T.U. Parks. 


He also said some old Krystal restaurants, like the now-razed former one on South Broad Street across from the current one, served chicken beginning about the late 1960s. They could be distinguished in later years because they had a separate door to enter and line to order chicken.


The Chattanooga Times announced the chicken-to-go concept in a November 1968 article. In it, Rody Davenport stated that construction was already underway on extensions to buildings -- chicken wings?! – at the Krystals at 3701 Rossville Blvd., 5401 Brainerd Road, and 3407 S. Broad St.


He thought that by mid-1969, some 90 Krystal restaurants would be selling chicken to go as well as French fries, cole slaw and rolls with honey. 


Before the proliferation of mostly boneless chicken restaurants or chicken wing eateries in recent decades, the Krystal chicken was for a period before its discontinuation in 1986 a hit as a regional alternative to Kentucky Fried Chicken. 


“In its day bone-in chicken by the bucket was very popular through the 1970s,” Gordon Davenport recalled while reminiscing. 


The move, which had come after plenty of work at their test kitchen at the company headquarters, was an obvious sign that Krystal executives at the time were doing a lot of thinking and not content to stay where they were.


But they did maintain a nostalgic connection to the past when they began selling the chicken, as on hand when the first chicken was sold at the South Broad Street Krystal on Dec. 23, 1968, were French Jenkins and J.H. Goodman, who had helped construct the first Krystal in 1932.


Mr. Jenkins also held the distinction of buying the first six Krystal hamburgers sold and enjoying them with Mr. Goodman. He said that he had become involved in Krystal when he saw a load of steel going through town on a truck in 1932 when jobs were hard to find in the Depression, so he followed it.


Krystal continued to grow and expand under the original ownership. In October 1992, a special ceremony was held at 7th and Cherry streets on the 60th anniversary of the opening of the original Krystal and the founding of the company. Then-Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter was on hand, and he recalled eating regularly at Krystals in Memphis and West Tennessee while a young salesman.


The Krystal at 7th and Cherry streets closed in late 1993, with numerous Chattanoogans eating one last meal there during the final days. Now, the site where a still-operating Krystal has been open the longest is on Cherokee Boulevard. 


The company in recent years has changed ownership several times. From 1997-2012, it was owned by Port Royal Holdings Inc., and Argonne Capital Group owned it from 2012-2020. In 2013, the company moved its corporate headquarters from Chattanooga to the Atlanta area. 


Since 2020, the restaurant chain has been owned by Fortress Investment Group LLC and its operating partner, Golden Child Holdings.


The younger Gordon Davenport, who said his father’s work led to a friendship with famed Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, still fondly recalls the chain’s former connection to Chattanooga and his family.


“I believe Krystal’s best days by far were when it was located in Chattanooga, Tennessee,” he said of this chain that started simple in its offerings and setup but grew to be quite a large, sophisticated, and successful corporation.


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