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Jake's Family Restaurant serves up more than food

In rural areas, it is common to find a place where people gather informally to discuss things that are going on both in the community and the world at large. For the residents of Chatom, Alabama, that place is Jake’s Family Restaurant.

Every day, Jake’s opens its doors to welcome people who are hungry for good food and conversation.

The story began in 1988 when Jake and Lucille Hartley, and their children C.C. Hartley and Vivian McLain, leased the restaurant in Timberland Motel. The lease lasted for five years. Then in 1993, with the help of McLain’s husband Ricky Smith, the family moved and built the restaurant at its current location, 17445 Jordan St.

It can be challenging to pinpoint when the relationship between Jake’s and the customers began. One thing is for sure, customers have been vital in helping create Jake’s as it is today. After all, the name of the restaurant was chosen by customers in honor of Jake Hartley, who passed away Dec. 23, 1992.

Customers were also the brains behind the creation of the large round tables that make Jake’s unique. When the family ran the restaurant at the motel, there was a special area for customers to gather and talk at two square tables pulled together in front of the counter.

When the restaurant moved, customers decided they wanted to build round tables to gather instead. Craftsman Devoid Richerson built the tables. Other customers supported his work by giving contributions to pay for them.

Today, these three round tables sit near the back of the restaurant. Two of them are near the counter, just as the other tables were in original location. The tables, with room to sit eight guests, have a rotating center in the middle that that holds all the condiments, napkins, straws, and creamer guests may need.

Table 8, one of the round tables, seems to be the most popular spot at Jake’s for community members to gather. Above the table are two televisions, one tuned to the news and the other to the weather, which have been known to spark conversations.

From 7 to 9 a.m. Monday through Saturday, people trickle in at various intervals to take a seat at Table 8.  When one customer gets up to leave, another comes through the doors to replace them. Conversations vary greatly throughout the morning. But one thing is always true. You are bound to hear something at Jake’s that you have not heard anywhere else.

Wayne Blackwell, a regular at Table 8, said, “People ask ‘Where’d you hear that?’ and I say I heard it at Jake’s.”

For Blackwell, “Jake’s is more than food.” It’s a place where people can come together to talk about all sorts of things. Of course, you don’t have to join Table 8 to get the news, but you are in for a treat if you do.

Freddie Hill summed up the atmosphere at Jake’s saying, “Folks come here to get the news.” He and Pastor Robert Loper are both regulars at Jake’s and spend time in the morning joined by other pastors or friends who stop by. Loper said Jake’s provides “a good environment to fellowship with one another.” 

The news and conversations are not the only things customers appreciate. Everyone also gives credit to owner Vivian McLain for making Jake’s special.

McLain is known around the community as someone who always lends a helping hand to those who need it. “She has helped a lot of folks. Most of the time, they don’t even know where that help came from,” Jason Boothe, with the local newspaper, said as he described her as “a great asset to the town of Chatom.” 

Employee and sister-in-law, Fay Lambert, added, “The thing that is special about Jake’s is Vivian.” She noted that Vivian has fed people at the restaurant when they did not have any money, and she is quick to send food to people who need it.

Lambert said customers appreciate McLain “because she is in the community and she contributes to the community. People appreciate what she does.”

One the other hand, if you ask McLain, she will say the customers and employees deserve the credit for making Jake’s special.

Among the LSU memorabilia, deer head mounts, landscape paintings, and fishing gear that line the walls, there is a memorial wall that honors customers who have passed away, reflecting how much McLain’s customers mean to her.

Her employees are just as significant. She has worked with one, Jeff Moss, for 34 years.

Regardless of whether you believe it’s McLain, her employees, her customers, or the news that makes the restaurant so noteworthy, one thing is clear: Jake’s Family Restaurant is a remarkable place where people gather to dine, fellowship, and discuss issues that matter to them.