By Jessica Mozo
You might say Jim Oliver’s Smoke House in Monteagle, Tennessee, is the quintessential American dream.
“My dad started in the restaurant industry in 1960 when he began operating a drive-in called The Beehive,” says James David “J.D.” Oliver, president of Jim Oliver’s Smoke House Restaurant & Lodge. “He had worked in the steel industry in Ohio and wanted to come back home. He couldn’t find a job, and he knew he could cook, so he borrowed some money to run The Beehive. He almost starved to death his first six months in business, but then it started to take off.”
Jim dreamed of creating a down-home, country-themed restaurant, and in 1975, he completed construction of the Smoke House. Using his mother’s recipes for favorites such as country ham, pit barbecue, fruit cobblers and buttermilk biscuits, he gained a substantial regional following.
Today, the Smoke House is still drawing hungry crowds for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and offers much more than dining. Situated on 20 acres, the Smoke House has become a cozy mountain retreat. It includes a lodge with 85 motel rooms, a large conference room, 20 fully-equipped cabins and a 10,000-square-foot gift shop filled to the brim with antiques, crafts, handmade fudge, old-fashioned candy, 14 flavors of barbecue sauce, jams and jellies, and an old 1920 player piano that’s a big hit with guests.
“We brand our own barbecue sauces, and make fresh fudge every day,” Oliver says. “The fudge has been really popular – we sold 7,000 pounds last year.”
Jim died in 2007, and now Oliver owns the business with his two sisters, Betsy and Nancy.
“Betsy runs the restaurant and has a lot of fun incorporating her own recipes with our old family recipes,” Oliver says. “We’re still serving dad’s pulled barbecue and ribs along with country ham, homemade biscuits, fried chicken and smoked roast beef, turkey and brisket. Betsy’s collard greens, turnip greens and cheese grits are always a hit, too.”
And save room for dessert – the Smoke House serves up six flavors of fried pies, including peach, apple, cherry, chocolate, pineapple and strawberry, topped with a scoop of homemade ice cream. “We make vanilla and chocolate ice cream, and we make the chocolate by melting the fudge we sell in our gift shop,” Oliver says. “We also make floats with our homemade ice cream, and we serve 30 different flavors of old-fashioned sodas in glass bottles.”
Guests often compare the restaurant’s atmosphere to Cracker Barrel, with its crackling fireplace, old pictures and mismatched décor.
“People always tell me, ‘Cracker Barrel stole your idea,’” Oliver says with a chuckle.
On Saturday nights, the Smoke House hosts a singer/songwriter event featuring local and regional talent. Stella Parton, sister of Dolly Parton and Oliver family friend, has performed twice.
The Smoke House gift shop sells a cookbook of Oliver family recipes and arranges gift baskets stuffed with smoked meats, jams and jellies, pickles, and sauces.
Oliver says he loves carrying on his father’s tradition and the opportunity it gives him to meet passers-through. “Seeing people come back year after year makes them feel like friends,” he says. “It’s like inviting people into our own house – only bigger.”