When Betty Shugart’s kids needed braces, she and her husband, Bill, found they could only afford them if she earned more money.
Concerned about the children’s teeth, Shugart’s father-in-law called up an old friend, Thad Eure, and asked if there was a position she might fill – temporarily – at his new restaurant. The Angus Barn was just a few years old, and Betty Shugart had no intention of staying more than a few months.
The Barn would go on to serve some 13 million patrons over the next six decades, and Betty Shugart played an integral role. Her temporary job that started in 1963 evolved into a 50-year career as she wound up cooking the food she had started out serving. When she first married her husband, she was 18 and, as family lore tells it, could barely boil water – let alone create the recipes that would become signature dishes at a fine-dining establishment.
Still, Shugart was known for far more than her long tenure. With her death this month at age 78 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer, the kitchen at the Barn was named “Betty’s Kitchen.”
“It’s like the end of an era. You just don’t find people like that anymore,” said Angus Barn owner Van Eure, Thad Eure’s daughter.
Born in Black Mountain as one of seven children, Shugart was just out of high school when she met Bill Shugart. They married within six months; two years later, they had two children. Her daughter, Kaye Knowles, describes her as a hardworking perfectionist – and a loving one.
“She was always very protective of my brother and me. You didn’t mess with Betty Shugart’s kids. I remember her chasing a bully that was picking on my brother out of our yard with a broom,” Knowles said.
When Knowles was a teen, a friend of hers became pregnant. The Shugarts offered her a place to stay: “She and I took her to the hospital to deliver her daughter,” Knowles said.
At the Barn, it was more of that same character. Though Betty Shugart was known for being fastidious and efficient – and was not one for small talk when there was work to be done – she put a loving touch into everything she did. That was true whether training a new employee or checking the last-minute details for a wedding shower’s decorations.
“She would get in here and just start working, from the minute she got here till the minute she left,” Eure said.
One of Shugart’s specialties, in addition to her recipe for chocolate chess pie, was setting a room up for an event.
“The room would be transformed, like something magic(al) had happened to it,” Eure said.
The only time Shugart allowed for diversion while on duty was when colleagues brought in their children. She couldn’t resist showing the kids around and inviting them to help her decorate a cake or make cookies.
Shugart spent about 15 years as a server before being promoted to dining room manager. During those years, she was honing her skills as a cook at home, so much so that she became a source of advice for improving recipes on the menu. In 1985, Thad Eure asked if she would like to be kitchen manager, a position for which she first thought she lacked qualifications.
But a raise in salary convinced her it was worth a try. So for more than a decade, until 1996, Shugart, a completely self-taught cook, put together the food at one of the premier restaurants in the South.
“She was the one who was making sure every single dish came out perfectly that every single recipe was followed right,” Eure said.
When chef Walter Royal joined the team, she gladly moved to the day shift to focus on prepping the meals.
“I thought it was incredible. You would never know that she didn’t have a culinary degree,” Royal said. “Her ham biscuits were superb. She was one hell of a baker.”
Shugart was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August, and she was ready to fight. She worked right up until her first and only round of chemotherapy. But it soon became clear her cancer would not respond to the treatment; yet she never complained to family and friends about her situation.
When she died, many remarked how sorry they felt for all those who did not have a chance to tet to know her.
“She was a second mother to me,” Royal said.
Granddaughter Jennifer Knowles also saw her as a very special woman: “She was the kind of person that God makes special; the kind of person that when she passed, we thought, with everything going on in this world nowadays, God needed her back to recreate what he put into man – to make more like her.”