In late June of last year, Jerry and Donna Hartsell, owners of The Bean Barn since 1981, entered into a well-deserved retirement. For a while, it looked as if Beans All the Way, which had been served since the 1950s when the restaurant was called Britt’s Grill, had reached its end.
Beans All the Way is as much a symbol of Greeneville as the cannonball church or the “Olde Towne Gate.” Romie and Zella Mae Britt started serving it when their employee, Reagan Walker, mixed some homemade beef stew into a bowl of lard-seasoned soup beans and topped it with chopped onions. It has been the centerpiece of the business ever since, from its era on Depot Street to its move into the old Still’s Grocery building on East Church.
I’ve been eating there since my days at Greeneville High School in the early 1970s. Then, students were allowed to leave the campus for lunch, and many of us packed cars and headed out for Beans All the Way.
During my college years, when I worked the early morning shift on radio station WSMG, I’d often eat both breakfast and lunch with the Britts. On days when my classes at East Tennessee State University ended around lunchtime, I would hurry back to Greeneville for a bowl of beans and a cheeseburger.
When I began writing about food and the people behind it, The Bean Barn was one of my first subjects. I’ve spoken about the place all over the country and in 2003 introduced the members of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi to its glories.
Britt’s Grill and The Bean Barn had been in the same family, at least indirectly, for well over half a century. When Romie and Zella Mae retired, the business came into the hands of their son Danny and his wife Donna. In 1981, they sold it to Donna’s brother, Jerry Hartsell, and his wife, also named Donna.
At my high school class reunion back in August, I heard that The Bean Barn might be coming back. That rumor proved true. In late December, the business opened its doors once again, thanks to a visionary former customer. Gary Hoese, owner of Gary’s Paint and Body Shop and a 1984 graduate of South Greene High School, has resurrected The Bean Barn.
The lights are brighter, the paint is new, and there’s a shiny new stainless steel hood over the grill. But amid all the renovations and refurbishing, Gary had the good judgment to keep some things just as they were. He’s still using the old grill, which imparts an unmatched flavor to those cheeseburgers. And most important of all, he has kept the menu pretty much like it always was. Beans All the Way is back, still flavored with that homemade beef stew, still dressed with those chopped onions, and still accompanied by a square of cornbread or a stack of light bread.
We stopped in the other day, on our way to Nashville. But we almost didn’t, thinking the place just might not be the same. We had gotten pretty far down 11-E before we decided to give it a try. Any doubt we had was eliminated once we saw the parking lot, so full we had to find a place down the street, in the lot where an old dress factory once operated.
We claimed a couple of counter stools, like we always did. When I saw the wife of a local football coach, an attorney on his lunch break, and two uniformed guys from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, I felt the same sense of community that has defined the place for generations. The Bean Barn’s role in building community had been restored. It’s an egalitarian place, one that draws folks from a fascinating blend of backgrounds and professions. They seek not only nourishment but also connection. There’s talk of Little League records and the health of grandparents, of property tax deadlines and upcoming weddings.
When that bowl of Beans All the Way was placed on the counter and I was able to order a glass of buttermilk to go with it like I always have, I knew The Bean Barn hadn’t just been reopened, it had been revived.
The Bean Barn
515 East Church Street