A Legacy of Love: John’s Drive-In Passes the Torch
For the owner of an iconic restaurant, retirement can be daunting. What will become of the institution I devoted my life to build?
In Charlottesville, C&O’s owner hand-picked as his successor the one chef he deemed most capable of carrying the torch. Bodo’s founder spurned suitors of his bagel bakery to leave it in the trusted hands of longtime employees. And, the family that ran Spudnuts for decades worried so much about what a new owner might do to their donut shop that they closed all together.
Over all of these decisions, one thing lingered: legacy.
In the Outer Banks, the family behind John’s Drive-In faced something similar when owner John Tice Jr. (Little John) decided it was time to move on. More than forty years of history weighed on the decision.
In 1977, John’s father (Big John) and his wife Pat moved from Pittsburgh with their three children – Little John, Mona, and Tina – to fulfill a common dream: live where you vacation. They used Big John’s pension and proceeds from the sale of their home to launch a restaurant in the Outer Banks.
Big John initially planned on a full sit-down restaurant before becoming intrigued by a Dairy Mart for sale in Kitty Hawk. For thirty years, he and his family ran John’s Drive-In, dishing out destination-worthy food and milkshakes from a takeout window. When Big John passed away in 2007, Little John took over, and didn’t change a thing. For vacationers and locals alike, John’s Drive-In remained what it has always been: an essential part of the Outer Banks experience, creating memories from one generation to the next.
Their secret? That’s easy, Tice says: kindness. “My father and mother not only taught us kindness and compassion, but they showed us through actions and deeds most never know about,” Tice said. That kindness, he says, is really the whole point of John’s Drive-In. “John’s for many is about feeling the future is bright and today is a lot better because I got my Dolphin and Milkshake.”
“John’s for many is about feeling the future is bright and today is a lot better because I got my Dolphin and Milkshake.”
If you pull into the parking lot with a pet, they will rush outside with a “puppy cup” of ice cream.
With brightly colored over-sized straws for the milkshakes, John’s Drive-In smiles at children of all ages. The children almost always smile back.
Regulars who started coming as children consider it an honor for their photo to join the collage that lines the windows. “The picture boards tell it all,” said Tice. “From puppy birthday parties to babies’ first milkshakes to first dates that lead to marriages and the next generation of John’s fans and family.”
Kindness alone cannot create a restaurant institution. It’s the food that keeps people coming back. “Boats” are paper trays filled with hush puppies, a choice of side, and either the catch-of-the-day, grilled tuna, crab cakes, popcorn shrimp, or, most famously, fried “dolphin” — locally sourced mahi-mahi. The same proteins are also offered as subs.
Pat Tice’s famous tartar sauce compliments almost anything well.
Consistency is paramount — both in preparation and sourcing. The seafood comes from local fishermen with whom John’s has partnered for decades.
But, it’s not all seafood at John’s. Hand-formed burgers have a loyal following, too.
And, among the sides, fried okra is a standout.
Passing the Torch
What to do with a legend? When word got out that Tice might move on, offers flooded in. Who wouldn’t want prime beach real estate at MP 4.5? But, with his family’s life’s work in his hands, Tice knew he could not sell to just anyone. “My father and my mother did not work as hard as they did or raise us the way they did for me not to care about the future of this beautiful iconic building,” said Tice.
To honor his parents’ legacy, Tice needed a buyer who would preserve the restaurant just as it is, which meant: an Outer Banks local, a longtime fan of John’s, and most importantly, someone who shares the kindness and compassion that fueled the restaurant for nearly a half century. In Chelsea and Jason Jordan, Tice believes he found just that.
Jason Jordan is an award-winning chef, who cooked at The Black Pelican for 15 years. Chelsea is a longtime friend of the Tice family, and, like Jason, a John’s regular. (Jason is partial to the dolphin sub, while Chelsea’s favorite is the chocolate-peanut butter – banana milkshake.)
When the Jordans learned that Tice planned to retire, they couldn’t pass it up, says Chelsea. “John’s is a local icon that we’ve all grown up frequenting,” Chelsea said. Like the Tice family, the Jordans did not want anything to happen to the Outer Banks institution that has brightened so many people’s lives. “For John it was important that the traditions carry on,” said Chelsea, “and that’s just what we plan to do.”
And so, when the Jordans took over last month, they did not change a thing on the menu. Perhaps the only change is longer hours, in light of the ever-growing demand for John’s. The restaurant is now open Thursday-Monday 11:00-5:00. And, on Thursday and Friday evenings, boats and milkshakes are available until 9.
While Jason’s culinary background and the Jordans’ love of John’s make them good candidates to carry the torch of John’s Drive-In, the most important criterion for Tice was the kindness on which his parents built the restaurant.
“Passion to take care of folks,” said Little John. “The Jordans have it.”