Fred 'Pal' Barger
At the age of 16, Pal Barger got his first taste of running a restaurant while working as a carhop at Skoby's barbecue drive-in, the restaurant his parents, the late Fred and Helen Barger, opened in Kingsport in 1946. He had no plans to follow in their footsteps, however, and leaned toward accounting as his future life's work. That all changed when he saw a hamburger stand named 2-J's in Austin, Texas while serving in the Air Force.
"I saw this other hamburger place in the ‘50s," he said. "I saw what they were doing, and they were doing a lot of business. It was a different concept from any other (restaurant)."
Fascinated, Barger attended the National Restaurant Convention in Chicago, where another budding restaurant entrepreneur overheard Barger talking about his hamburger restaurant concept, and invited Barger to visit his own restaurant, then under construction in Des Plaines, Illinois. That entrepreneur happened to be Ray Kroc, and that restaurant was the very first McDonald's.
After serving three years in the Air Force, Barger returned to his native Tri-Cities to finish college at East Tennessee State University, earning a business degree in 1955. While attending classes at ETSU, Barger leased a restaurant in Marion, Virginia, earning half of what he needed to open his first Pal's Sudden Service on Revere Street in Kingsport in 1956.
"It was a restaurant with a walk-up window, and I wasn't thinking beyond one," said Barger. "I didn't have plans to expand."
But within three years, a second and third Pal's had opened up in Kingsport. A few years later, Barger built the Olde West Dinner Theatre, which he operated until the late ‘70s. Upon his father's death in 1971, Barger also took over the management of Skoby's Restaurant.
Barger focused on a single region for his restaurants, and began his first drive-through restaurants in 1985. That was the same year that the restaurants adopted their now famous exterior "stair-step" store fronts featuring giant hamburgers and hot dogs on the roof. As Barger expanded the menu from hamburgers only to hot dogs, chipped ham and chicken sandwiches, his restaurants also expanded throughout the entire Tri-Cities region.
Today, Barger operates 18 Pal's Sudden Service restaurants in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. The little drive-through hamburger and hot dog restaurants with the distinctive architecture and the goal of "quality food served fast" have now grown into the quality standard not only for the fast food industry, but for the business world as a whole. This was made apparent when Pal's Sudden Service became the first restaurant to receive the Tennessee Quality Award and the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award in 2001 for excellence in operation and service.
"We were introduced to the Malcolm Baldridge Award in 1989, but we didn't get into it strongly until about 1993," said Barger. "We applied three times. The first time, we didn't even get a site visit. The second time, we got a site visit, but didn't win. The third time, we won."
Qualification for the Baldridge award outlined an exhaustive self-assessment process in seven areas: leadership, strategic planning, customer and market focus, information and analysis, human resource focus, process management and business results.
"We didn't really have a ‘wake-up call'. Sales were continuing to increase every year," said Barger. "Even before we won the award, it gave us a goal to work toward."
That goal was becoming the best-managed business anywhere. "We don't want to be the biggest. We just want to be the best-run business, period," said Barger. "We don't want 500 poorly-run restaurants. I'd rather have 20 that I'm proud of. We don't franchise, and we don't open a restaurant until everything is just right. We don't go and put out fires."
In striving for that goal, Barger put into place an employee training process unheard of in the restaurant industry prior to Pal's becoming the first restaurant in history to receive the Baldridge award.
"We require 120 hours of training for each new employee," said Barger. "We are constantly training. Even employees who have been with the company for 10 years still take the tests two times a month. Somebody asked me, ‘What if you spend all that money and they leave?' and I said, ‘What if you don't and they stay?'"
Such rigorous employee training has resulted in a tremendous drop in employee turnover, a rate that is far below Pal's nearest competitor. It has also greatly reduced employee accident rates, consistently boosted health inspection scores, and raised customer satisfaction to a rate that well exceeds its closest competitor.
"The award is a nice recognition, but you don't stop just because you got it," said Barger. "It's just a milestone on the journey."
Barger also received the Kingsport Times-News Award for Distinguished Community Service in 1993 for his efforts in helping make Kingsport's MeadowView Conference Resort & Convention Center a reality. He has served on several local boards, and was inducted into the Tennessee Restaurant Association's Hall of Fame.
He was named ETSU's Outstanding Alumnus in 2001. He is a member of the ETSU Foundation and the Roan Scholars Leadership Program Committee. Barger's company provides community support through the United Way, the Santa Train scholarship fund, several student organizations, and ETSU Pride Week.
Barger said that he has never regretted his decision to go into the restaurant business after all, even in the early days of long hours and hard work. "I didn't feel like it was hard because I was having too much fun," he said. "When I went home at midnight, I wanted it to be 8 a.m. again so I could go back! Somebody said being retired is being where you want to be, doing what you want to do, when you want to do it. I've been retired all my life and didn't know it!"
Barger and Sharon have three children, Rick Barger, Chris Barger, and Christy Stout; and four grandchildren, Landon and Jonathan Pratt, and Lottie Rae and Zoe Stout.