CORINTH — The number of knickknacks, relics and photographs hanging on the walls of Abe’s Grill — both inside and out — is likely equal to the number of days the roadside diner has served Corinth in its 43 years. Stickers, hubcaps, vintage signs, license plates, pictures, foreign currency, handwritten notes, postcards, eyeglasses and old soda bottles are the décor — the ambiance — of this family-run operation established roughly 11,000 weekdays ago on March 11, 1974.
“You can turn everything into art,” said owner Abe Whitfield. “There’s a place for everything that comes in here.”
The newest adornment, a miniature church, was being installed atop a pole above the building. Even the bathroom, located behind the potato cutter at one end of the boxcar-sized dining room-kitchen combo, holds a few treasures, like the photograph of Billy Bob Thornton signed “to the gang at Abe’s.”
“The bathroom’s where all the good stuff is,” said Ryan Abie Whitfield, Abe’s only son.
Floating from the restaurant’s ceilings are car tags from all 50 states, a sign that reads “NEVER trust a skinny cook,” and an extensive menu. On both ends of the red counter, which can accommodate no more than 20 guests — even with the few stools inside the kitchen— are signed photographs of and with Donald Trump from the 1980s.
Behind that counter, three hustling workers in crisp white shirts and bright blue aprons ask customers what they’re having. The Whitfields are fast and efficient like their work space with its tea vats at one end, oven at the other. The cooktop and heat lamps are in the middle with a freezer under the counter from which frosted Mason jars — drinking glasses — rise, glistening, to be filled.
Even after all the years and acclaim, not much has changed since the diner opened, when Abe was 23 and his wife, Terri, was 21.
“It’s amazing to me because we were so young,” Abe said. “We didn’t know we were going to be here 50 years.”
And besides regular trips to Key West, the Whitfields — both natives of Corinth — have been in nearly the same spot for decades. When the workday is over, they walk through a door in the back of their restaurant that leads into their own home, which they built 30 years ago.
“We couldn’t do this if we didn’t live here,” Abe said. “There’s work going on here about round the clock.”
The proximity to home perhaps helps Terri the most. Her alarm clock rings at 1 a.m., and 30 minutes later, she has switched on the heat lamps and is in the kitchen working up a Martha White self-rising flour-and-buttermilk dough. It’s a documented — but secret — recipe that both Abe and Ryan, the third full-time employee, have watched her make countless times.
“It would all shut down if it weren’t for her. She makes the biscuits,” Abe said. “We could do it. It wouldn’t be like hers, but still, that’s her fame, and we can’t take her fame.”
It’s Terri’s biscuits, after all, that both customers and signs in the parking lot proclaim to be the Mid-South’s favorite. Abe’s Grill has another claim to fame, though. It’s the oldest diner on Highway 72 — and on a Civil War landmark, at that — still operated by the original owners.
“Our menu is the same now as it was 43 years ago,” said Abe, who arrived at the cooktop around 4:30 that morning just after switching on the “Open” sign hanging on the front porch. That means they’re serving the same ribeye sandwich — a favorite at lunchtime — the same chocolate gravy, the same Big Abe (a double cheeseburger) and the same two eggs with pork brains as they were in 1974. The fried hot dog hasn’t changed, either.
“We split the hot dogs, fry them and put them on a hamburger bun with chili, cheese, slaw and onion,” Abe said. “And our coleslaw is homemade. We get real heads of cabbage; we don’t use bagged vegetables on anything.”
Making the slaw is one of many tasks performed by Ryan, who reports to work around 6:30 each morning. He’ll be back around 9 p.m. or so to finish preparing for the next day, stacking the beef patties or slicing the pork tenderloin (both of which are bought daily from Gardner’s, a local supermarket).
“We come in every day prepared to feed a lot of people,” Abe said. “We don’t come in and say, ‘Well, it looks like it’s going to be rainy tomorrow; we better not fix as much.’ We come in every day with a positive attitude ready to cook a lot of food. And there’s nothing ever left.”
Nothing left of the 30 dozen eggs they go through every morning and nothing left of the 200 pounds of potatoes they fry at lunch. According to Abe, who claims there’s no way to figure exactly how many people they’re feeding each day, the hustle keeps his work fun.
“I like being snowed under,” he said. “I don’t like to be standing around. I like for it to be crazy.”
His wife and son agree. And, despite the years, none of them have slowed down.
“We’re all hyper,” Terri said. “People ask me when we’re going to retire, and I say, ‘When the good Lord calls me home.’ Because, when we’re gone, it drives me crazy because I can’t find enough stuff to do.”
That is, unless they’re in Florida, where they vacation in a bed and breakfast 90 miles north of Cuba.
“The busier you are, the more money you make so you can go to Key West,” Ryan said. “That’s the whole ticket right there.”
But, Terri, the mother and grandmother who never paused to consider a different career, is quick to count her blessings.
“We’ve been so lucky that we have been busy all these years,” she said.
In 1974, though, Abe and his new bride didn’t have much of a choice but to be successful.
“I said, ‘We’re not going to see if we’re going to make it. We are going to make it.’ And that’s the way it’s been,” Abe said. “We didn’t have anybody to help us. If it didn’t work, we didn’t have anybody to go to. So we had to make it.”
According to Abe, they’ve not second-guessed themselves in all their years as both business owners and a couple.
“There’s two things we never thought about,” he said. “We never thought about getting out of this business and doing something else, even years ago when times might not have been as good as they are now. And we never thought of splitting up. We’ve been married 45 years. She never went home to Mama — really! — and I’ve never slept on the couch in all those years.”
Perhaps it’s that attitude that has fueled the couple’s — and Ryan’s — work ethic all these years. But the people they’ve met along the way don’t hurt.
“Even though you’re doing the same thing everyday, you’re not doing the same thing because of the conversations you hear from different people who come in here,” Ryan said.
His parents, who may work on opposite ends of the counter until closing at 3 p.m., hear those conversations as well.
“People say, ‘Well what have you got to talk about?’” Terri said. “And I say, ‘We talk about what he’s heard on his end and what I’ve heard on my end.’”
What Abe hears seems to have a recurring theme.
“People come in here from the other end of the Earth, and they’ll tell us they’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “And, sometimes, we’ll have someone here from Germany or England or Australia, Canada, Mexico . . . all at the same time!”
Even the man whose name is painted in green on the building knows of no other business like his — after all, it’s run by only three people. It would have been four, but Abbey, the Whitfields’ daughter, “would rather dig ditches” than work at Abe’s, according to her mother. For the other three, though, it’s quite the opposite.
“This is all I want to do. I don’t want to do nothing but this,” Abe said. “We both love it. We all love it.”
Ryan loves it because it brought him home to his wife from a 10-year stint working on a crane.
“It’s been a great decision,” he said. “I’m still married after 16 years.”
And Terri loves it even when she’s cutting potatoes at the end of every day.
“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” she said. “I enjoy the work, but it’s for me. If it were for somebody else it would be a different story.”
But because the Whitfields do indeed make their own way, a few things are certain: Terri will go to bed “when Lester Holt says goodnight after the NBC Nightly News” in order to make her early morning meeting with Martha White. Roman Whitfield, Ryan’s 11-year-old son, will know a thing or two about the family business, as he’s already begun training. And Abe, unless he’s in the Keys or no longer living, will show up to work Monday through Friday.
“People say, ‘You ever get tired of it?’” he said. “I don’t get tired of doing this. I love it.”