Table Talk: Columbus-based Tee Jaye's marks 50 years of serving meals
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Tee Jaye's Country Place Restaurants has heard of the Barnyard Buster.
The dish that features two biscuits, two eggs and country fries with country gravy poured over the top sells by the thousands every week at the chain's eight restaurants in central Ohio.
But when Jules Sokol, the late patriarch of the restaurant, rolled out the entree for family members, they were skeptical of the meal.
"We told him, that looks ugly," son Randy Sokol said. "You won't sell any."
They were outvoted, and the Barnyard Buster made its debut in 1980 for $1.99.
As part of its 50th anniversary, all eight Tee Jaye's rolled back the prices on the Barnyard Buster to $2.99 on Sept. 12 -- the day the first Tee Jaye's opened at 1385 Parsons Ave.
"We have a lot of great food but nothing as popular as the Barnyard Buster," said Dayna Sokol Sandsten, company president.
Jules Sokol worked in the family insurance business before deciding to open restaurants, with no experience.
"He didn't care," Randy Sokol said. "He just wanted out of the insurance business."
Jules Sokol was responsible for starting the Beverlee Drive-Ins in 1951, which expanded to 28 locations across Ohio, mostly in small towns. After he developed health problems, the drive-ins began to suffer and eventually closed, the last in 1968.
Randy Sokol said his father didn't leave one bill unpaid; everyone, from food purveyors to restaurant suppliers, eventually received payment.
Undaunted, Jules Sokol and his wife, Nita, bought the Hasty Tasty on Parsons Avenue, which was renamed Tee Jaye's, taking the first initial from his partner, Tom Parker -- reformatted to Tee because Nita liked to golf -- and Randy's middle name.
The Parsons Avenue location was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, a schedule the others adopted. There were once 13 restaurants.
"My mom said life for a lot of people doesn't stop at 11 o'clock," Sandsten said.
It first was going to be a burger joint, but the couple discovered there was a real desire for home-style comfort fare and expanded the menu.
But in March, when the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic forced restaurants to temporarily close and then limit the number of on-premises diners, the restaurants switched to breakfast-through-dinner hours.
"Thank God for carryout," said Sandsten, who would not disclose the financial impact the pandemic has had on the restaurants.
The Sokol siblings all worked in the restaurant at some point, but only Sandsten remains, replacing Randy Sokol as president when he branched out and formed Sokol & Associates, a business brokerage specializing in restaurants.
Beverlee Sokol left the business in 1999. Ronni Sokol, who lives in Texas, helps with the company's social media.
Jules and Nita Sokol were known for taking their children on trips to the South to check out food that would inspire the Tee Jaye's menu, from cornmeal pancakes to chicken-fried steak -- even liver and onions -- all homemade, of course, Sandsten said.
"It's a history," Beverlee Sokol said of the anniversary. "It is. It's a legacy."
With no one in the extended family to take over the business, the chain likely will be sold when Sandsten, 60, retires.
"We really think the business has a lot of growth left," Randy Sokol said.
Recalling how school breakfast was a big part of his life, Ryan Bryson is giving back.
The owner of SuperChef's Breakfast & More is giving away a free meal to any central Ohio student.
SuperChef's is offering one new meal a week served with a piece of fruit. The meals are available from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays at the downtown Columbus location, 199 E. Broad St.
Call-ahead orders are preferred.
"They can give you virtual classrooms, but they can't give you virtual meals," Bryson said.
Bryson is a 2005 Columbus Alternative High School graduate who left law school to pursue a career in the restaurant business.