Uncle Pete's offers down-home cooking, friendly atmosphere
Just off the beaten path known as Interstate 40 awaits one of Lebanon's busiest restaurants and coffee dens.
Known as Uncle Pete's Travel Center & Restaurant, the giant parking lot here hits the no-vacancy mark practically every night as 140 truckers bed down in their cabs for dreamland.
Operated for the past 26 years by Pete Norman, Uncle Pete's marches to a different drummer compared to the corporate-owned truck stops. A vanishing breed, these indie truck stops, that fuel diesel engines and long haulers' tummies, survive with quality service, good public relations, a strong dose of ingenuity and originality and just pure friendliness. But there's more.
"What we offer that new truck stops don't is good country cooking, down-home food," said Pete. "Corporate truck stops want you in and out quickly. Very few have a sit-down restaurant. We're finding younger drivers get tired of that. So now we're seeing them come in because they're fed up about it. Of course, we serve breakfast morning, noon and night."
That includes Mama's Chicken Breakfast, a recipe supplied by Pete's mother. And then there is the challenge known as Pete's Breakfast, which offers three eggs, grits, homemade buttermilk biscuits and gravy, choice of potatoes with either a half pound hamburger steak, two pork chops, whole slice of country ham, sausage or country fried steak. The price is $9.89 if you're hungry enough to tackle it.
For an honest-to-gosh, blue-collar review, here's what a retired truck driver posted a while back on Uncle Pete's Facebook page:
Always looked forward to stopping at Uncle Pete's when I was in the area. Fresh hamburger steak with gravy was 'slap mama' good. Friendly staff, reasonable priced, down home cooking. And a guy on site to wash your trailer instead of having to track down a washout facility. Miss that place! Souvenir cups line the walls from where truckers have donated to the cause. Usually ample parking even if you get there late though you may have to park in the backbeat where the trailer washout area is. It's really rare when a driver looks forward to a truck stop this much but this was the case at Uncle Pete's. This was definitely in my Top 2 truck stops in America.
The over-the-road haulers are not alone in their fondness for this Cedar City truck stop that's sort of like ambling back into another era. Among the country singers who've sampled the menu are the likes of Billy Dean, Aaron Tippin, Alan Jackson, Charlie Daniels, Brooks & Dunn, Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee and The Judds.
Jackson also taped his "Blue Ridge Mountain Song" music video on the site, and The Old Crow Medicine Show followed suit. A scene from an episode of the "Nashville" TV series was filmed here, and the Cooking Channel gobbled Pete's grub here for an episode of "Vinny & Ma Eat America" that aired in February.
Not impressed yet?
Colossus, the world's largest python, has squeezed in here for a sneak peek, and the Bush's Baked Beans dog, Duke, has also visited. No word on whether he sampled Pete's baked beans.
Pete, the name and face behind the travel center and restaurant, was born and raised in Donelson.
"I was smarter than the average bear and ran off and joined the circus known as the U.S. Army," said the dropout who completed his high school and college degrees while in the military.
He served as an engineer and then a helicopter pilot in the Army from 1964 to 1975.
"Fort Polk was a great education," he admits about his basic training. "When I got there my drill sergeant got all over me about quitting school. So one of my extra duties was to read letters from home to three guys from Hazard, Kentucky, and then help them writer letters back. I had to rewrite the letters in Kentucky hill language. That made me decide I was going to get me an education.
"I got my college degree in the Army. I was prepared to become a schoolteacher but never taught a day. I became an assistant principal of schools in Warren County, Kentucky. I was over everything that was not educational and did that for five years."
He then operated a construction company for 11 years. After selling that, he began buying bankrupt businesses.
"This was my fifth one," he says of his place, which was known as Country Boy Truck Stop when he purchased it in 1991. "I had so much fun with it. No two days were the same. I had no intention of staying and was living in a 42-foot gooseneck trailer on the lot. But I enjoyed the new people coming in and liked it so much that I just kept it."
Along the way he remodeled it, added bigger bathrooms, showers, a laundry room and made over the restaurant. "It's ready for a new facelift," he said.
About five years ago, Pete passed the baton on to his middle daughter, Tara Duncan.
"She is the official chief cook and bottle washer and president. She's computer literate, while I'm not. She is the backbone of the company now. She amazes me," he said.
Another daughter, Heather Norman, who teaches at DuPont-Tyler Middle School in Metro Nashville, also pitches in when needed, mainly in the summer months.
Tara echoes some of the same reasons her father has about the wonders of running this place. She says, "It's exciting. There's never a dull moment at a truck stop. There's always something different, although at times it is difficult.
"I enjoy the fact that it's not cookie cutter. I enjoy getting to know different people and talking to them, and we have regulars that we get to know and care about. It's like an extended family."
She began working here part time after graduating from high school and went full time in 2001.
"I've done anything and everything: Cleaned toilets, waitressed, cleaned, cooked, worked in the office," she said. "Now I'm like the general manager but do accounting, bookwork and manage. We don't have an IT department, I'm it. I even do maintenance. When toilets break, we have to go fix it. You have to do every little thing. Lately it's been finding good help, almost to the point you'd rather do it yourself."
Describing Uncle Pete's, she said, "We have a more hometown feel. We genuinely care about the individual truck drivers. ... We get to know people, and they hang out for hours. If they have something wrong, we try to help them."
Tara says the most important one she has learned from her father is the importance of caring about those down on their luck.
"He's always helping homeless people or people that are stuck or hitchhiking from one place to the next," she said. "We give everybody a free meal to a point. He always helps people, and in the beginning I was like, 'Why are we helping this random guy?' I'm so much more skeptical, but he tries to teach me to have an open heart toward everybody."
Uncle Pete's place keeps 22 full-time employees hopping. Among those are seven waitresses: Tammy Wilson, Britney Taylor, Lesley Harris, Brandi Neal, Rose Waddell, Jessica Harris and Phyllis Banfield. Banfield is Norman's longest tenured staff member. Working the 5:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekday shift, she will notch her 20th anniversary at the truck stop restaurant in August.
Banfield says, "I most enjoy the people. I love people. I learn a lot. I ask questions. I'm nosey too. I want 'em to feel like they're at home. I'm interested in the person, not just knowing what they want to eat."
She reported that the most popular orders on the menu are their hamburgers, catfish, western omelet and Uncle Pete's Breakfast "because they come in hungry and want something to fill them up."
With a red-and-white checkered floor, the restaurant sprawls across two big rooms with booths and tables aplenty. What will catch your eyes before you ogle the menu will be the thousands of coffee mugs (6,422 to be exact or maybe 6,423) on shelves around the walls.
There are mugs here from every state and 41 countries. Practically every one of them has been drunk from. Pete's collection is not yet in the "Guinness Book of World Records" but he aims to apply for it later this year.
"Those 16 cups behind the counter," he says, pointing toward them, "have never been drunk from but are in line waiting. We've even had cups given to us in people's wills."
Norman made four tours overseas during the Vietnam War.
At 17, in late 1965 he was sent to Thailand as unit movement specialist and assigned as an engineering assistant to the embassy. He shared that for his efforts in building schools, bathhouses, community offices and sewage treatment facilities, he received a royal commission and a sword from the King and Queen of Thailand.
From 1966-67 he toured Vietnam with the 589th Engineer Battalion and was continually on the move overseeing water purification points. His third tour and fourth tours were in 1969-1970 and 1971-1972 after he had received training as a helicopter pilot.
"I started flying Hueys and Loaches [light observation helicopters] in a team called the hunter-killer team with Cobras. While I was doing this, my roommate and I were asked about flying Medivac. I flew some flights and liked it so much that I flew then with the 526th medical group."
Norman owns a Hughes TH55 helicopter, one that he flew in training school, and has logged 100 miles in it since having it restored. He keeps it in a hangar near the truck stop.
He has been assisting with the Wilson County Veterans Museum and serves as commander of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association of the Ohio Valley LZ and is on the board of directors of the Vietnam Veterans of America and on the board of VFW Post 5015.
Uncle Pete's Travel Center & Restaurant
Uncle Pete's is located at 1210 Sparta Pike, just off Interstate 40 Exit 239. Hours are 5:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Phone: (615) 449-0030. Facebook page: www.facebook.com/UnclePetesTruckStopLebanontn/