When Elliston Place Soda Shop opened in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1939, Franklin Roosevelt was president and Alaska wasn’t even a state. Now, more than 80 years later, Elliston finds itself under new management after nearly closing for good in late 2019. When long-time customer and real estate developer Tony Giarratana purchased the business from its previous owners, the restaurant underwent a major transformation, reopening in a larger space next to the original. Though the updated shop is bringing in customers old and new, moving, revitalizing, and expanding the business was hardly a cakewalk. But as Jim Myers, the head of culture at Elliston and self-described “soda jerk,” tells it, celebrating the restaurant’s rich history guided the team through it all.
A facelift is in order
The guy who owned the original building told Tony [Giarratana] he could sign a five-year lease. Tony looked at the building, which was being held together by duct tape and nicotine, and said he couldn’t operate in that space for five years. So, he looked at the building next door, which was even older than the soda shop. Moving an iconic restaurant with so much character and soul was the first big challenge. Figuring out how to go from around 55 seats to 255 seats and all of the challenges that come with it—like needing a bigger kitchen—was another.
Keeping the charm
We jackhammered the floor out to lower the profile. We also kept the exposed beams. Then we took the old wall-mounted jukeboxes, which haven’t worked since the 1970s, and reinstalled those after rechroming them. Unfortunately, a delivery truck backed into a vintage neon signs that used to hang at the original store, but we got an exact replica of it made. We tried to maintain as much of the charm as possible.
One of the best things Tony did was keep Linda Melton around. Linda is a 29-year veteran of the restaurant who held Elliston together through her personality and relationships with customers. She makes the pies every morning, and they’re beautiful. We call the meringue “gospel meringue” because the higher the meringue, the closer to God you are. These beautiful meringue pies are showstoppers in the front case right when you walk in.
Getting the word out
We still have people who come by 15 months after our reopening saying, “Well, I thought y’all closed.” Even though we’ve been around for years, we can’t assume everyone knows about the restoration.
Word to the wise
Stay true to who you are, and let that guide your decisions. It’s very easy to chase shiny objects in this industry, so you need to have a set of principles to help you make those decisions. Ask yourself if this makes sense for who you are. And if it doesn’t, don’t do it.