Shell's Bar-B-Q History

Red neon light bouncing of the gleaming 'metal surfaces onto iridescent vinyl upholstery isn't the only thing that makes the interior of the new Shell's Bar-B-Q glow. A good deal of the warmth in the dinner-style restaurant radiates directly from owners Lisa and Blake "Bee" Watts Jr. as they prepare for the continuation of a St. Stephens tradition.

Lisa and Bee Watts"I don't think of this as any part of Shell's ending, but instead as a beginning," said Lisa Watts, sitting in a roomy booth at the new eatery on Springs Road.

"I'm excited about the new building" she said, noting that it will accommodate nearly four times as many patrons as the old Shell's, and will have a modern drive-through in back, complete with lighted menu board and speaker box. Then she looks accross a large, newly paved parking lot at the 32 seat restaurant Fred Shell opened in November 1952 and which will soon be demolished.

"In one sense it's sad, simply because there are so many memories associated with it," she said. "I'll definitely have a moment of silence in reflection, and probably a tear or two. But I'm 'determined not to let the personality of Shell's change."

Nearly 50 years ago, the 800 square-foot building that became the original Shell's was moved to Hickory from Charlotte, where it had been a Donut Dinette. Lisa Watts' parents, Mable and Wayne Hollar, purchased Shell's from its namesake in 1975. By then it had long since become a St. Stephens landmark, as well as a cruising destination for area teenagers.

"The downtown area had the Big Rebel, west Hickory had the Snack Bar, and the St. Stephens community had Shell's," said Watts, who, grew up helping out at the restaurant. She and Bee Watts met at Shell's, were married 14 years ago and have owned the restaurant since 1989.

"The people you see at Shell's are the people you go to school with, to church with, people who live nearby. Even though Hickory and the St. Stephens area are growing, you still get that sense of community here."

         - Lisa Watts co-owner,Shell's BAR-B-Q

Seeing that the old building was rapidly deteriorating, the couple bought the 1950s style DjJ's Diner building from NASCAR racer Dale Jarrett last year.

In early August, they had it moved from Rock Barn Road in Conover to its new 'home, behind the original Shell's on Springs Road. Now sporting a new Shell's sign, the sparkling silver, red and blue Starlite Diners-built restaurant stands ready for the steady stream of patrons that flows in and out of the fading red-and-black metal building just a few yards from the heavy traffic on Springs Road.

"It'll be safer for our customers, and for other drivers on Springs Road,"Bee Watts said of the new restaurant. "There's only room for two cars at the drive-up window at the old building, so traffic backs up on the road, creating a hazard. That's one reason we decided to do this."

The old restaurant will close for good at 9 p.m. Saturday,and the new Shell's will open at 6 a.m. Monday. Customers will be able to buy the barbecue, hot dog and cheeseburgers for which Shell's is widely known, as well as the cherry-vanilla- lemon soft drinks that have been a specialty at the restaurant "forever," Lisa Watts said. Banana splits, ice cream and milk shakes (including peanut butter) will be added to the menu. Coming soon will be plate lunches and daily specials.

The new, 2,400-square-foot restaurant's comfortable seating and nostalgic decor, including 1950s and '60s automotive memorabilia, will likely lead to more people eating in instead of taking out. "We've always been known as a place to pick it up and go, but now we'll have room to seat families," said Lisa Watts, who anticipates the restaurant's business shifting from 75 percent take-out to about half and half.

"We've already had calls about parties and meetings, and have booked three parties," she said. One thing that won't change, the couple emphasized, is the restaurant's allegiance with the St. Stephens community. Most of its part-time employees are students at St. Stephens High School or Lenoir-Rhyne College.

Lisa Watts is a graduate of both. On prominent display at the new restaurant is a large shadowbox containing aSt. Stephens letterman's jacket. "The people you see at Shell's are the people you go to school with, to church with, people who live nearby," said Lisa Watts. "Even though Hickory and the St. Stephens area are growing, you still get that sense of communityhere."

And while they are excited about the new restaurant, the couple don't plan on opening any spin-offs. "Definitely not," Bee Watts said. "We've got three boys, and we've got to have some time to spend with them."