Iconic restaurant marks 80 years in business
by Shaka S. Lias
May 12, 2011 | 5539 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Melissa Rogers serves Jackie Robinson a hot dog with fires. Robinson’s first visit to the restaurant came at age 5 when his aunt took him there after a movie. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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Two hamburgers, gravy wrapped and a Sprite was James Smith's order Wednesday afternoon at 4-Way Lunch. Smith, a 20-year patron of the restaurant, said although he ordered burgers, his favorite item on the menu are the hot dogs.

On Friday from 5:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Smith and anyone else can order a hot dog or hamburger for just 80 cents each in honor of the restaurant's 80th anniversary.

Owner Lillian "Pete" Starnes, who started working at the restaurant as a young waitress, said that is the business' way of giving back to the customers.

She said it's a great feeling to celebrate 80 years.

"I feel like this is my baby and I've seen it grow up," said Starnes, who has also seen two and three generations come through the restaurant.

"I love people and I love being able to serve them like I would my own family," she said. Her own family includes two daughters, a son and her husband of 43 years.

Her daughter, Melissa Rogers, works with her mother and said she was kind of destined to work there since her mother was pregnant with her while working as a waitress.

Missy, as she is called by the customers, has worked periodically since she was 15, learning the ropes and the customers. She came to the restaurant full-time four years ago.

"You meet some really interesting people from different places," Rogers said.

She said a couple from Illinois came to the restaurant last year and enjoyed it so much that they framed a picture and sent it back to them.

In addition to Starnes and her daughter, there are four additional employees. "It's like one big family," Starnes said.

That's the way it has been since Fred Garrison opened the restaurant in 1931. Garrison passed the restaurant down to his son Ernest, who Starnes worked for for nearly 42 years.

In 1993 the restaurant burned and had to be shut down for seven weeks. Starnes and her sister paid to have it repaired. Ernest Garrison didn't have any children and passed the restaurant on to the sisters. When Starnes' sister retired, she bought her sister's share and became sole owner.

The restaurant has been at the same location for 80 years, downtown at 31 E. Main St. Starnes said the current location used to be the main road to Atlanta.

Many famous people have sat at the booth of 4-Way Lunch, including Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall, Joe Frank Harris and Falcons football players.

Starnes said while the eatery sees lots of business, the customers are the key to their success. "People get to talk to the cooks and the food is very good."

So good 4-Way once stayed open late to accommodate a man who wanted to have his bachelor party there. Starnes chuckled at the memory of the group of men eating burgers at the restaurant before going out.

In addition to the famous burgers, favorites include the chili burger and steak sandwich, and children love the pink hot dogs. "I don't know why they are pink, but the kids love them," Starnes said.

Everything is prepared fresh. "We do it ourselves and I think that's what brings everybody back," she said.

The restaurant is also open for breakfast. Starnes said when several manufacturing businesses closed she lost a lot of her breakfast customers.

"I struggled at lunchtime, too. It affected my business," she said, adding business is picking up.

No matter how busy they get, the one thing that will not change is the location. The restaurant can hold about 15 customers at a time and the customers don't seem to mind. Starnes said they eat and go.

"A lot of people don't have a lot of time to each lunch," she said. "People come in, sit down eat and they are gone."

There are 11 booths up front and four in the back. Starnes said the back area was once used for blacks only.

"Most of my customers still come here in the back -- black and white," she said. "They get good service; a lot of times they wait until a customer is done for a back booth."

As for the future of 4-Way Lunch, Starnes, 59, hopes to work a little while longer before her children take over.

"I would like to keep it in the Starnes family as long as the Garrison family had it," she said. "I'd like for it to stay at this location also."

Starnes said she has a game plan set for the huge crowd expected Friday. She will work to-go orders in the back, while the rest of the staff mans the front. There is no limit on how many burgers and hot dogs a customer can order.

"This is appreciation I'm showing to them -- they can get as many as they want," she said.

There's only one "problem," there will be no call-in orders -- the restaurant doesn't have a business phone.

Starnes explained, "We've never had a phone and that's just part of our tradition."