Forty-six years ago, Rory Smith was facing down an interrogation. The information at stake? “They said you have to be 16 and I said, ‘Well I am 16,’” Smith recalls.
Nearly half a century later, that might have been the most important lie of Smith’s life. That year, his local Shoney’s, in Charleston, West Virginia, brought Smith, who was actually 15, into the fold. He hasn’t left since. In fact, he was recently standing in the same restaurant where he once told that fib, which he now owns, in a twist that feels like it was torn right from the fabric of the American dream.
Smith navigated Shoney’s from the line to the boardroom to the battlefield. Once the senior vice president of the brand, Smith become a franchisee in 1996. Eventually, he added the nostalgic Charleston location to his portfolio of 11 units across three states. When asked what it feels like to flip the script, Smith paused before answering. “People always say what were your emotions? I say it was mixed emotions. I had joy and happiness,” he says.
Shoney’s, which started in 1947, is one of those casual dining icons that has flitted in and out of public conscious over the decades. In the 1980s and 90s, it was among the biggest brands on the market, with some 1,300 locations in 34 states. But in 2000, the company filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection and was whittled down to 282 restaurants. That’s when David Davoudpour, who was the founder and CEO of the largest Church’s Chicken franchisee company, bought it. He’s been spearheading Shoney’s revitalization with a new chef-driven menu, design, and commitment to the family values that once anchored the chain. Shoney’s now has around 150 units scattered throughout 16 states and is enjoying a comeback tale of its own.
For Smith, he’s been there through it all. No matter which direction the pendulum swung, Smith has stayed all-in. To grasp this unwavering loyalty, you have to trace his commitment back to the beginning. Smith is an honest person with steadfast morals. But when it came down to economics, stretching the truth meant putting food on the table. Or, in this case, on Shoney’s table—a workplace where he could collect a paycheck as well as a daily meal.
“You have to understand where I come from. I didn’t have anything,” Smith says. “Shoney’s didn’t give it to me, but they gave me the opportunity. And I worked my rear end off to provide for my family. … Social economics were extremely tough for us. The restaurant business was natural because I knew I would get a good meal every day.”
When Smith was 15, those some economics limited his vision for the future. He didn’t want to become a movie star or an astronaut. He was just hoping for a chance. “I hate to say it this way, but I wasn’t well educated and I don’t mean that in a negative way by any means,” Smith says. “I didn’t see all the opportunities. When I saw what before me was somebody who believed in me.”
At Shoney’s, for the first time in Smith’s life, he witnessed the tangible possibilities of hard work in this industry. He was promoted to store manager when he turned 17, taking the reins at a small-volume operation that had its share of problems. He was promoted again. Soon, Smith was married and the life experience led him on an interlude. He joined the Air Force because it “was a little safer and a little more secure.” But when Smith realized he needed more for his family financially, Shoney’s, who was already knocking on the door, rejoined the story.
As soon as Smith returned to the brand his career skyrocketed. Store manager to 22-year-old supervisor. Then—like clockwork—every two years he seemed to grab hold of a new rung in the corporate later. Eventually, he secured the role of senior vice president for the entire brand.
Smith’s journey with Shoney’s hasn’t always been an unblemished one, however. When it came time to hire a new president in 1995, Smith went out for the job and came up short.
“I realized as an individual that you didn’t need to have two leaders,” Smith says. “You don’t need to have one leader second guessing the other. You have to be all-in. And if you’re not all-in, you need to get all out.”
Smith couldn’t pull himself away from Shoney’s altogether, so he simply laid tracks for a new career. He went and finished up schooling, earned a degree, and started consulting. Smith bought one Shoney’s in Belle, West Virginia, which led to another. “I wasn’t trying to buy a lot,” he says.
Yet when that home market came available, he pulled the trigger. The same was true in Huntington, and the story just kept repeating. He now owns stores in Kentucky and Alabama as well.
“When I stand there [in the Charleston restaurant], every once in a while, it is a humbling feeling I will promise you,” Smith says. “When I open that door and go into that store, I’m thinking I came to work because I wanted to get something to eat. I try to remember my roots. That store is a great store. People are wonderful and they care a lot.”
Throughout this process, Smith’s opinion of Shoney’s hasn’t oscillated. He admits there were some gaps in leadership that led to tough times, but at its peak, Shoney’s is hard to beat. “When we run it right, we’re king of the hill,” Smith says. “We’re the best family restaurant out there. That’s my personal opinion. People say, ‘Well, you’re pretty biased.’ I say, ‘Yeah, I am.’ But I also know I have facts. I can look at my customers and see what they’re doing. It’s one thing about saying we’re good and you’re not. It’s another thing saying hey, ‘I’ve got the best meatloaf and I know it because I eat it every day.’ … We’re getting back to the Glory Days. I really believe that.”