Ned Lidvall, the president of O’Charley’s Restaurant & Bar, spent a few minutes with World War II veteran George Bennett Vann at the brand’s Woodstock, Georgia location in July. Vann was flying a B-24 aircraft in the war when he was shot down over Austria, captured, and eventually placed in a prisoner-of-war camp in Northern Germany, where he stayed until being liberated by American troops.
The conversation provided some perspective for Lidvall. “We’re losing 1,000 of these guys a day,” Lidvall says. “They were truly a generation that should be honored.” In addition to celebrating his 91st birthday, Vann was also being recognized by O’Charley’s as one of its Hometown Heroes, a three-year-old program that’s approaching a milestone of its own. Capping the week of Veteran’s Day, which is November 11, O’Charley’s will laud its 150th veteran in even-grander-than-usual fashion, although Lidvall couldn’t say just yet what that entails. But like Vann, he expects it to tell the tale, and rightfully revere, another deserving candidate.
“[Vann] was a once-a-week O’Charley’s customer,” Lidvall says. “He knew every server in the restaurant. That kind of event is really special. The thing about that generation is that they didn’t ask for any appreciation. They were just doing their job. But I think he loved telling his story and we had his picture up in front in the lobby, and, for all I know, it’s still there.”
Over the past three years, O’Charley’s has honored a Hometown Hero in conjunction with the reopening of one of its updated units, a pretty regular event, Lidvall says, for a 41-year-old company with more than 200 locations in 17 states. Along with the initiative, the program also participates with Operation Gratitude, which reaches out to serving members of the military by sending care packages overseas.
When the Hometown Hero is selected, the participating O’Charley’s and city typically curates its own celebration. In Vann’s case, a Boy Scout troop, the local fire department, staff, and patrons sang the national anthem. There was a presentation of the flags, and, of course, Vann was treated to dinner.
Lidvall says the fact Charley Watkins, the founder of O’Charley’s, was a veteran himself, having served 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a pilot and retiring as a Major in 1963, has always played a big role in the company’s dedication to honoring veterans.
With the 150th Hometown Hero on the horizon, O’Charley’s is extending its Veteran’s Day celebration to encompass the entire week. November 9, a Monday, free dinner will be offered to veterans. That Wednesday is Free Pie Wednesday, like usual. With the help of the Tennessee National Guard, the 150th veteran will then be selected and celebrated. “Continuing this not only makes good business sense but it’s the right thing to do,” Lidvall says of the future, adding that O’Charley’s also takes pride in employing veterans. “This is something that will continue to grow, and we will continue to support and honor veterans whenever we can.”