When Mary Anne Sparkman and her husband William bought the Toot-N-Tell It Drive-In restaurant 46 years ago, people tooted their horn for service and someone would come out, take their order and serve them their food.
They changed it up a bit, closing the drive-in, adding a kitchen and an extra dining room so people could come inside. With that they dropped the “drive-in” part in the restaurant’s name. They wanted to be a family restaurant.
Some of those same people who came in years ago still come in, or either have children and grandchildren who come in.
“I’ve been here 46 years and when people come in, all of their kids look like they did,” Mary Anne Sparkman, 77, said.
The couple had bought the restaurant after William Sparkman’s stepfather, who owned it, died. Both quit their jobs, and they have run the place ever since. It was a project to say the least. The restaurant was in bad shape. There was old grease and the restaurant had a C rating. They closed the restaurant down and cleaned the place and put in new equipment before they reopened.
Serving lunch only, Toot-N-Tell was the hottest restaurant in town, partly because it was one of the only restaurants.
“We were the only restaurant really in Garner,” she said. “In the ‘80s we were doing tremendous. Then other restuarants started coming. But we still kept our business.”
William Sparkman no longer works in the restaurant. He has Alzheimer’s disease and lives in a nursing home.
Marry Anne Sparkman and her daughter, Donna Sparkman, together run the restaurant now. Together they serve breakfast, lunch and dinner – Southern-style home cooking.
Donna Sparkman, 54, has worked in the restaurant 41 years, since she was 13. It’s the only job she’s ever had and all she’s ever known.
“When my friends were out having fun, I was in the restaurant working,” Donna Sparkman said. “But we all still got to eat here.”
“There’s just never a dull moment. We just entertain people because there’s always something going on. But this is like home to me. I go to my house to sleep.”
When she was younger, Donna Sparkman used to get picked on for the restaurant’s name. She said they considered completely changing the name one time but decided against it.
“I’m glad now we didn’t, because no places last this long and you can’t forget the stupid name,” she said. “It stays with you.”
Donna Sparkman said she still enjoys working at the restaurant. She loves the people the most. “Tough bosses though. I’ve got mean bosses,” she said, smiling at her mother.
“I have elderly people that you want to take home with you,” Donna Sparkman said. “They’re by themselves, and they’re happy by themselves because this is like home to them. They mean so much to you. They’re just like family to us.”
Jack Whitehead, 82, said he’s been coming to Toot-N-Tell for 25 years. He and a group of four friends meet there every evening around 5.
“They call our table ‘X-Rated,’ he joked. “We come every night sometimes on Sunday. I like the company and I like the food. It’s the people. You meet a lot of people that’s friends.”
’Til they can’t do anymore
It hasn’t always been easy however. One of the hardest things about the restaurant, the two say, is finding reliable people to work. Some of their employees have worked there for more than 20 years. But at the same time they’ve seen many people come and go.
She said she knows she works them hard and Mary Anne Sparkman doesn’t believe much in taking time off.
“Finding people to work is the hardest part,” Donna Sparkman said. “Filling up three meals a day for people to work to take care of the customers. If we didn’t have that problem we wouldn’t have any problems. People say they can’t find jobs, I can’t find them to work.”
But still, they have persevered through the tough times and Mary Anne said she doesn’t plan on giving up on the restaurant.
Donna Sparkman said she, too, will run the restaurant as long as she can, and she’ll likely be the last in the family to own the business. She has no children, and her siblings have other occupations.
“Until I just can’t do it anymore,” she said. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had. This is our life right here.”