Community shares memories of Clarence’s Drive-In after fire destroys building

UNICOI COUNTY, TN (WJHL) – Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley revealed the cause of a fire that destroyed a popular restaurant in Unicoi County.

He said an investigation determined the fire that destroyed Clarence’s Drive-In on Tuesday night was accidental.

Sheriff Hensley said three fire departments responded to the well-known restaurant on Unicoi Drive just before 11 p.m. Tuesday night.

But by the time they got there it was too late.

Sheriff Hensley said an asphalt sealing company was sealing the parking.

An investigation revealed the fire started when workers used a propane burner to get rid of grass in the cracks and flames traveled into the restaurant.

If you mention Clarence’s Drive-In to someone in Unicoi County, they will all tell you the same thing.

“Clarence’s is not a place to eat. Clarence’s is a place to hang out and talk to your friends,” said customer Larry Taylor.

The family owned restaurant opened in 1969 and locals will tell you it sold some of the best country cooking in the region.

“My favorite was the ham and cheese omelet and the home fries and onions,” Taylor said.

“Finest biscuits and gravy I ever ate, so I’m devastated over it,” said Hensley.

Sheriff Hensley has been coming to Clarence’s for decades and has many memories here.

Seeing the restaurant burn up was heartbreaking for him and many others in Unicoi County.

“Well known for good food, good service, clean place to eat. Home cooked meals. Not too many of those around anymore. I’ll say for sure I’ll miss it,” he said.

Boy Scout leader Larry Taylor of Troop 237 sells Christmas trees at Veterans Memorial Park in Johnson City.

His troop has a tradition at Clarence’s around this time of year.

“Every Friday after Thanksgiving we meet at Clarence’s at 7 o’clock in the morning to eat breakfast and then go up and cut the trees,” Taylor said.

He said people would drive up from as far away as Georgia to come up for breakfast before they go to work.

“Just for the breakfast because they love to eat at Clarence’s. I’ve already had 6 or 7 phone calls this morning saying hey where are we going to eat at because Clarence’s is not there. And they’re devastated because they don’t know where to eat,” Taylor said.

The restaurant sold more than just breakfast.

Teresa Ellithorpe says it’s her favorite place to grab dinner on the weekends.

“If it’s not Friday, it’s Saturday. We would come here to eat. And it just breaks my heart to see this now,” Ellithorpe said.

They said they hope to see Clarence’s Drive-In open its door back up soon.

“We would really love to see them rebuild,” she said.

One of the owners of Clarence’s, Teresa Collins, said “We will be back, but I’m not sure when. We are thinking about leasing until we can get back up. There are a lot of decisions to be made in the coming days.”

Hensley said the restaurant has insurance and that the investigation into what caused the fire is now closed.

Copyright 2017 WJHL. All rights reserved.

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