RUGBY — When Harrow Road Cafe opens for the season in a couple of weeks, it’ll be with some familiar faces at the helm.
Bill and Ella Smith, the long-time owners of Fireside Restaurant in Huntsville, are returning to the restaurant business. Their new venture will be a little further south, and a little further off the beaten path, but they’re hoping their faithful customers from the Fireside days will find it worth the drive to the quaint Victorian village that straddles the Scott-Morgan county line west of Elgin.
A familiar role
At their ages — he just turned 80 and she isn’t too far behind — most people might not have the nerve to undertake what Bill and Ella Smith are undertaking by reopening the Harrow Road Cafe. But if there’s anything they know, it’s the restaurant business. And if there’s anything the local community knows them for, it’s the restaurant business.
These days, Ella Smith is the organizer of the Robbins Food Pantry, a grant-funded project of her church — Rugby Road United Methodist — through the Second Harvest foundation. Prior to that, she spent a decade as the executive director of the Morgan-Scott Project that is based in Deer Lodge. But she’s best-known for the three decades she spent as the face of Fireside Restaurant on S.R. 63 in Huntsville, alongside her husband.
In 1977, when Bill Smith was still in the U.S. Navy and stationed in Norfolk, Va., he and Ella purchased the former 63 Steakhouse from his sister, Vanetta. For 29 years, the husband and wife team operated the successful business, which became a favorite daytime hangout for Huntsville residents.
She runs through a list of people who were loyal customers of Fireside through the years — names like Charlie Welch, Clois Strunk and J.D. Chambers.
But in March 2006, the couple got out of the restaurant business, selling Fireside and stepping into retirement — though retirement is a word that doesn’t suit Ella Smith very well.
“I miss the people,” she said. “I want to be out and about, and I enjoy being with people.”
An opportunity presents
Lately, Ella Smith has been considering the lack of restaurants south of Oneida. And she’s wanted to do something about it.
“There are no restaurants between RaeZack’s (in Helenwood) and Pilot Mountain Diner (south of Sunbright),” Smith said, referring to the barren stretch of U.S. Hwy. 27 between Oneida and Wartburg. “There’s no place to eat unless you run into Stop-N-Go and get something. And there’s nothing wrong with their food, but you can’t go in and sit down.”
It was only coincidence that Smith broached the subject of the lack of restaurants on the south end during a recent meeting of the Scott County Chamber of Commerce. Because, in just days, an opportunity was going to present itself.
As it turned out, Rugby’s Harrow Road Cafe was vacant. The former lease-holder hadn’t renewed, and the restaurant was on the verge of sitting empty for the summer — that is, if a new operator didn’t step up.
“I had been thinking about it ever since I had known it was available,” she said. “I didn’t know at the time they were planning to be closed all summer. But we were driving down the road one day and Bill said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
It didn’t take much coaxing for Smith.
And if Ella Smith was going to get back into the restaurant business, one of her first calls was going to be to her long-time friend, Evelyn Lowe.
Lowe was just as much a familiar face around the old Fireside Restaurant as either of the Smiths. In fact, Lowe worked for the Smiths for the entirety of their 29-year run at the restaurant.
Ella Smith asked Lowe if she was ready to get back in the business. She didn’t have to ask a second time.
“I’m tired of staying home, doing nothing,” Lowe said. “I would’ve never left Fireside if Ella hadn’t left. We’d still be there today.”
New to the team will be Lowe’s daughter, Kimberly Jeffers. She works in food service at the Morgan County Jail, and will be joining the Smiths and her mother as Harrow Road’s new manager. Lowe will return to her familiar role, cooking. Bill Smith will also return to his familiar role, making the soups and cooking the steaks. And Ella Smith will do what she does: make pies … or at least some of them.
“Me and Evelyn will fight over the pies,” she joked. “She does more than I do, but that’s what I’m known for.”
A love for Rugby
Ella Smith grew up visiting Rugby — before it had been restored by the non-profit Historic Rugby and turned into a tourist destination.
“When we were in school, instead of going to Gatlinburg, we came out here,” she said. “The houses weren’t locked at the time. You could go in anytime, and we did. We would go in the library, then go down on the river and have a picnic. That was our big school outing of the year.”
As a teenager, Rugby was the place for Smith and her friends to go courting.
“Back then, the cafe was just a house, and there was a concrete picnic table in the yard next to the house,” she said. “When we were courting, we’d come up here and sit at that old picnic table.”
When Bill and Ella were married, they spent some time away from Tennessee. But, ultimately, they came back. And Ella found herself involved with Historic Rugby. She took classes there, made baskets there, and was a vendor at their events.
“It’s been a part of our lives since we’ve been back here,” she said. “Not just the shops and things and the classes they give, but also the restaurant. It’s always been a part of our life. Our grandkids, still, when they’re here if they’re out at the Pumpkin Festival (in Allardt) or whatever, they stop here and eat.”
So it was a nice twist of fate that just when she was ready to get back into the restaurant business, Rugby was calling Smith’s name.
“Our past here is the main thing that draws us here,” she said. “We want the restaurant to be alive and well, and we want it to be something that somebody would want to bring their family to.”
Building something new
When Fireside was a thriving restaurant on S.R. 63, it was “very much known for having a coffee table,” Ella Smith said.
She wants to build the same atmosphere at Harrow Road Cafe — a place where the folks can relax and drink their coffee. “I feel sorry for some of the people in our church who have to drive all the way up to McDonald’s and sit there and have their coffee,” she said. “We could be a place where people want to go hang out.”
In the beginning, Harrow Road — which is shooting for a first-weekend-of-April opening — will only be open on weekends: 11-9 on Fridays, 9-9 on Saturdays and 9-6 on Sundays. Eventually, though, Smith hopes the hours will be extended to include more days of the week. But because of it’s location, she and her team will start small.
“This is a destination right now,” she said. “It’s not a place you’re just driving along and you say, ‘Hey, this looks like a nice place; let’s stop and eat.’ But I’ve found on my visits out here that if you come to eat, you’ll visit the other shops, and if you come to visit the shops and you’re hungry, you’ll come on over and eat.”
The menu at Harrow Road will be Fireside’s menu, in a lot of ways. There will be the traditional British favorites that have been on the restaurant’s menu for years — things like shepherd’s pie, beef manhatten and fish-n-chips. But there’ll also be the traditional American favorites that Smith featured at Fireside — chicken tenders, salads … and, of course, pies. There will also be daily specials, which Bill Smith has already been expirementing with.
“It’ll be freshly-cooked food,” Jeffers said. “That’ll be something different that people will notice. And it’ll be reasonably-priced.”
It’s the reasonably-priced part that Smith wants to highlight. “We want this to be a reasonably-priced meal with good service, and hopefully fast,” she said. “We want it to be family-friendly. And, to me, family-friendly means that it’s reasonably priced, you get good service, and it includes a children’s menu.”
Smith isn’t used to sitting still. After 29 years at Fireside, she jumped straight into Morgan-Scott Project with both feet. When she was ready to retire for a second time, she jumped into the food pantry at Robbins with both feet. She’s also involved in efforts to revitalize the Elgin Community Center. She’ll continue her work with both the food pantry and the community center, she said. But she’s also determined that Harrow Road will be a success.
“My big thing right here is I want to try to use my experience out here,” she said. “I have this thing, I can’t let myself fail. And so my goal here is to get this up and going and eventually turn it over to Kim. God’s been good to me, but I know that at some point I’m going to be old to do this. In the meantime, though, we do intend to be very actively involved.”