East Tennessee State University students hide their cell phones underneath their desks as they create a group chat with friends asking if the lunch plan for “El Kroger” is still on.
This lingo is not foreign to students, who have unofficially nicknamed the Johnson City, TN Mexican restaurant, El Charolais, due to its being next to a Kroger near campus.
El Charolais has served jumbo margaritas and house-made quesadillas since the owner, Jose Luis Jauregu, opened the regional restaurant chain in Johnson City.
Jauregu has operated restaurants since 2004.
El Charolais is open 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays, stays open until 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and closes early on Sundays at 9:30 p.m.
Why travel to Germany when the same authentic cuisine is cooked and served in Johnson City?
Freibergs’s is a German restaurant located in the heart of downtown Johnson City, TN operated by a native from Germany.
When Herholz moved to Tennessee, he brought with him knowledge and firsthand experience with German dishes and cuisine.
He and his wife Michele decided to open Freiberg’s German restaurant in 2008, naming the restaurant after Herholz’s hometown in Eastern Germany.
“I enjoy German food; it’s very authentic, ” said Shane Grace, a frequent guest. “I’ve tried most of the menu, and it’s all delicious.”
Freiberg’s has set hours posted on the company’s website.
The sky glares orange and red, and the sun sneaks past the horizon. After a long day of working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., most people crank the stove to start cooking dinner. Some collapse on their bed after the day’s struggles.
Jordan Banks, however, has work to do.
Street lights flood the area as Banks hauls longest-standing late-night food cart of Johnson City, TN, Street Eats, to his usual ally between Capones and The Hideaway.
It is 26 degrees outside; two degrees less, and Banks may have considered staying home for the night.
“I’m pretty hardcore,” said Banks. “That consistency is what people appreciate.”
Banks relaxes after setting his restaurant up on the sidewalk.
He pulls out his phone, which reads 10:27 p.m. Street Eats opens in three minutes. From now until he closes at 5 a.m., he will top over 200 hotdogs.
Late-night crowds arrive to downtown Johnson City, packing the clubs and hovering around the bar waiting for another drink. Banks readies the cart for the bars’ aftermath of customers, all hungry after guzzling an unknown amount of beer.
A few minutes pass, and several customers stop by to order a Fritos Pie Dog, the bestseller. Others go a different route and order the Jalapeno Popper and watch as Banks tops the quarter-pound dog with cream cheese.
“Cream cheese on a hot dog sounds crazy,” said Banks. “But people go insane over it. Street Eats steps up the game with what you can put on a hotdog. Street Eats goes a more premium route and tries to get the best of the best. They aren’t the kind you get at a gas station.”
It is midnight now, and Banks fills the toppings to the brim after wiping down his work station. For the last hour and a half, he jam-packed 40 hotdogs.
He recalls a time when he was not the only vendor of Street Eats. Banks and his high school friend, Matt Oerly, began running the food cart in March 2012 after both getting laid-off from Omar Awnings.
Oerly’s brother and wife, Sam and Tess Oerly, bought the food cart as a “leap of faith” and trained Banks and Oerly so they could run the hotdog stand together.
Banks admires Tess’s talent for creating recipes for which customers return.
“Tess has a genius mind for coming up with the menu,” said Banks. “There have been very few adjustments to it. The [original] menu has stayed almost the same the entire time.”
The Oerlys finalized the hotdog menu, which consists of nine original dogs, not counting seasonal hotdogs such as the Monster Mash that customers relish during Halloween.
“The Monster Mash is a specialty,” said regular customer Chelsea O’Brien. “And now when Jordan sees me, he tells me ahead of time when he’s going to have mashed potatoes out.”
Matt Oerly worked the food cart alongside Banks until he graduated college four years later, leaving Banks to vend shifts by himself.
“The busiest hours were at the very end of the night from approximately 2:30-4 a.m.” he said. “The only nights that really felt long were the nights when we were not busy [because] there weren’t many people downtown.”
Friday night emerges, and Banks awaits the downtown demand. Several people linger by, reading the menu and sporting furrowed brows.
Banks fills six more hotdogs with various toppings while laughing along to the customers’ anecdotes. He beams as the last person strolls away while chomping down on hotdog 85 of the night.
“The downtown late-night crowd is what I’m committed to,” said Banks. “80 to 90 percent of my customers are regulars. They have shown so much support and love, and I’m really thankful for them.”
Banks wipes a dollop of sour cream from the table top. Most containers are almost empty again, so he replenishes the toppings.
Towels pile up in a bucket behind him, and the counter gleams under full containers of Fritos, pickles and onions. Banks recognizes O’Brien sauntering toward Street Eats with her usual group.
“I eat at Street Eats about five times a month,” O’Brien said. “It started as a drunk going-out food that was available out of convenience when I was leaving the bars, but then I started wanting them for lunch in the middle of the day.”
O’Brien says her temporary goodbyes to Banks as he reaches for a clean towel to swipe across the counter. His toppings dwindled within the past 30 minutes, so he sprinkles handfuls more into the tubs. He hotdog count stands at 115 before the 3 a.m. rush.
Voices and laughter echo off the surrounding brick walls. Banks checks the time. It is 3:07 a.m., and the bars close for the night. Banks anticipates working another rush alone. He curls his lips upward at the sight of multiple groups heading his way.
It is showtime.
“It’s not hard work,” said Banks. “It’s just a lot of work. I love it, and I am going to ride it out for as long as I can. I’m not getting rich or anything, but I support me and my family.”
The cash register propels open between glove changes, and Banks presents hotdog after hotdog to customers. He uses the back of his hand to clear debris from the table and smothers a Rebel Yell Dog with sriracha chili sauce before handing it to a single customer standing before him.
Hotdog 219 claims last place. Another successful night.
Lids top the containers, and a garbage bag bursts with waste. Banks trudges to the dumpster and notices a glow in the sky. It is 5:34 a.m., and the sky breaks into an array of purple.
After a long night of sleep, most people are waking up for another day’s work.
Jordan Banks, however, has sleep to catch.
The Wild Wing Café in downtown Johnson City, TN hosts band performances every weekend.
Sarah Goodpaster, the sport bar’s marketing and promotions manager, runs the show from Knoxville and ensures guests have live music and can leave with a good experience.
Bar-goers mingle with friends carrying a bucket of beer, shaking hands with acquaintances with sticky fingers from the smothered chicken wings.
The Wild Wing Café stays open Monday through Sunday 11 a.m.- 2 a.m. and welcomes walk-ins and offers take-away plates.
Petite Sweets in Johnson City, TN sprinkles each cupcake in-house. The shop is open Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m- 5 p.m. and closes at 2 p.m. on Saturdays.
On top of running the shop, owners Zachary and Rachael Holmes offer catering services and designs cakes and treats for special events such as baby showers, birthday parties or weddings.
Five years ago, Rachael discovered her passion for baking and decorating cakes, and finally opened her store, Petite Sweets, on East Oakland Avenue in Johnson City in 2014.
She stays busy with multiple weddings and birthday events every weekend.
Tennesseans who move out-of-state often miss the waves of mountains, but for some, it’s sadder leaving behind the option of a Big Pal and Frenchie Fries.
Pal’s Sudden Service in East Tennessee began when Pal Barger, owner and CEO, opened the first sit-in store in Kingsport, TN in 1956.
There are only two sit-in Pal’s diners in East Tennessee, and the rest are all drive-throughs, where customers order at the first window, drive around the store and pay at the second window.
Usual waiting time is less than five minutes, and Pal’s Sudden Service is the first restaurant chain in the United States to be awarded the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.