‘You can’t get any faster than sudden:’ The story behind Pal’s Sudden Service

Tri-Cities Original

For some, it’s the last place they stop on the way out of town.

For others coming home after an extended time away, it’s the first place they drive through.

To say that Pal’s Sudden Service has “brand loyalty” is an understatement. Its reputation for service and efficiency are legendary. And after winning the 2001 Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award, Pal’s Sudden Service’s business model has become an example emulated by businesses around the world.

But talk to company founder Pal Barger and he’ll tell you – the secret to success has been simple.

“I think if you give them good food and good service they’ll come back,” the 88-year-old told News Channel 11 in a recent interview. 

While the company regularly gets requests to open new locations in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, Pal’s is holding steady with 29 stores.

Will they build another?

“If the right opportunity comes along,” Pal said, sitting behind his one-of-a-kind desk shaped like a hot dog. It’s the centerpiece in his minimalistic, industrially simply, yet classicly quirky office at the company’s headquarters in Kingsport.

While Pal’s is all about Sudden Service – “You can’t get any faster than Sudden,” Pal loves to say – the story of how this Tri-Cities Original came to be is a lesson in slow and steady-as-you-go.

Pal says he got the idea while serving in the United States Air Force in Austin, Texas in the early 1950s. He visited a drive-in called “2J’s” and witnessed fast food served in a new way – a restaurant that operated like clockwork.

“I knew a little about the restaurant business,” Pal said.  His parents owned Skoby’s Restaurant in Kingsport. But this was something totally different. Simple menu. Quick service. No sit-down dining to require staff and extra space. And good food.  

“When I saw that, I knew that was what I wanted to do.

Pal was so intrigued by what he saw, he cased the joint with a pair of “borrowed” binoculars. “They called it spying then,” Pal said. “Now they call it benchmarking.”

The memory is enough to make him roar with laughter.

Along the way, he met McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc and even ate lunch with him at the first McDonald’s restaurant.

“He happened to be standing there. I didn’t know who he was,” Pal said. “So, I didn’t think it would be history. Wish I’d known that at the time. I might have gone in with him.”

More room-filling laughter.

With some key lessons learned, Pal came home to Kingsport and opened Pal’s in 1956.

“It was successful from the very start,” he remembers. And from the start, Pal said he was determined to keep it simple.

“If you don’t have the best-tasting food, people aren’t coming back.”

The menu – straight forward. Don’t try to be everything to everyone, Pal says.

Make the service fast. Even better – make it sudden. And tell your customers that’s the promise.

From the start, Pal said he was determined to devote time and resources to training his employees.  

“You have to train people so they’re comfortable with what they do,” he said insisting that poorly trained employees often don’t like a job and quit.

But when it came to the design of the buildings, Pal ditched simple and embraced the outlandish.  And he gives all the credit to his friend –  artist Tony Barone.

“I told him, ‘I think I’d like to do a fast food place,'” Pal said, remembering an evening conversation seated around a table. “He just took a napkin and drew it upside down so I could see it.”

The pen on napkin sketch hangs framed in the corporate lobby. It shows larger-than-life fast food  – hamburger, hot dog, etc – placed on stair-stepped blocks. Like something out of a child’s storybook.   

“That’s how Pals was designed,” he said.

Pal said Barone didn’t realize the perfection of his first attempt.

“Pushed that aside and he said, ‘Here’s another idea.'”  

“I said I don’t want to see anything else. That’s it. That’s what we’re going to do.”

And they did.

Barger said the first building triggered a reaction from a woman passing by that he’ll never forget.

“She asked, ‘What are you building down there? A bank?’ I said gosh I hope so!”

Pal leaned back in the chair laughing.

“They wanted to know who the crazy guy was who did that!”

Turned out – the “crazy guy” was on to something.  

One store became two, growing as it seemed to make sense, as employees rose in trust to the point they could run a store on their own. “You have to train people so they’re comfortable with what they do,” Pal said.

The 2001 Malcolm Baldridge Award led to the Pal’s Business Excellence Institute in Kingsport. People come from all around to attend classes and learn about successful business principals.

Why didn’t Pal follow in the footsteps of Ray Kroc and take the company global? Why stop at 29 stores when customers are clamoring for more?

“I don’t know,” Pal said with a shrug. “I’m pretty happy.”

“How much is enough, you know?” he said. A rhetorical question, a clear sign that “as-is” is just fine for the time being.

“We just do it ourselves. We kind of stay small. We live a good life.”

What’s the secret to Pal’s famous iced tea? How did french fries become “Frenchie Fries?” And what does Pal order when he swings through the drive-thru for a bite to eat?

Watch this WJHL.com EXCLUSIVE:

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Born and raised in the Tri-Cities, Josh Smith has been a member of the WJHL team since 1999. His family roots go deep in the region, and he’s traveled through almost every part of it covering news on local TV since 1995. When he’s not on the job, he’s with his wife, two sons, and daughter.   “They’re the best part of me,” he said.   You may run into them biking on the Tweetsie Trail, hiking around Bays Mountain Lake, or browsing the shelves at the local public libraries.

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