When The Collegiate Grill, located on the square, closed in 2008 after going through a short period of owner changes, Jeff Worley said he would drive by it every day and look at the darkened windows.
Worley grew up eating at the diner and started his first job there at 12 years old.
“It just grabbed at me,” he said. “God gave me a vision of simplicity. I kept thinking, ‘Why is nobody doing it right? Everybody was messing it up and complicating it.’”
In November 2008, Worley and his wife, Donna, acquired the business. Worley said they picked up the pieces and restored it back to how it looked when its original operators, George and Margene Brown, ran it from the late ‘40s to the ‘80s under its founder, Curtis Sewell.
“I basically from memory set it up the way it was before,” Worley said. “I’d been here so long, to me it was like riding a bike.”
After the Browns retired in the ‘80s, Worley said The Collegiate Grill was purchased by Cathy and Hank Holderfield. When Worley graduated from high school, he said the couple hired him to work as the restaurant’s general manager. During that time, he learned the ins and outs of the business and the Holderfields even offered to sell him the diner.
Unfortunately, he said the deal fell through, and then the restaurant went on a long journey of going from owner to owner. At one point, Worley said The Collegiate Grill transformed into a Cuban-style restaurant.
When he revived the restaurant to its old glory, Worley said he kept the menu the same as when it opened over 70 years ago, sticking to the Browns’ coleslaw and other original recipes.
“Dec. 13, 2008, was our first day of business,” Worley said. “We opened on a Friday, and we were blown away with volume. We did that first day what I’d consider good numbers even today, 13 years later.”
For the last five years, Worley said The Collegiate Grill has received the Best Burger award from The Times’ Best of Hall, and more recently was named Family Business of the Year along with Tipton Construction during the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s 2020 gala.
One blow after another
Although the restaurant has experienced a lot of growth, Worley said huge obstacles have been thrown his way, starting with a month after they officially opened.
For 18 months, he said construction workers rebuilt a four-story parking deck directly in front of their business, causing customers to walk nearly two blocks to enter the building. The Great Recession also hit at the same time, hurting the restaurant even more.
Through the power of God and help from the building’s owner, Dr. John McHugh, Worley said they were able to pull through.
“It was a God thing,” he said. “There were days when Donna and I would sit and pray before we opened. Our faith played a big role in that.”
Around a year-and-a-half later, Worley said the city started an infrastructure project to install new sewer lines, which caused more fencing to go up in front of his restaurant for several months.
The fence was erected again around three years ago when two levels were added to the parking deck in the square.
“When they did that, I had nightmares,” Worley said. “The biggest crane I’ve ever seen was parked outside my front door. They’d let it run and the exhaust fumes would come through the front door. That was a huge interruption for six to eight months.”
In February 2020, Worley said the business was able to regain its rhythm through the help of a Small Business Administration Loan. For a little, he said things were going great, then another obstacle struck — the pandemic.
“In March, COVID came and changed everything,” Worley said. “When Kemp did the shelter in place, we had to shut immediately down for two weeks. Since that time, our sales have been all over the place.”
During the pandemic, Worley said The Collegiate Grill went from serving 80% of customers in-house, to instead serving 80% to-go.
Worley said the restaurant became overwhelmed with to-go orders, which caused the wait time inside to skyrocket, making many in-house customers angry.
“For every in-house ticket, there were eight to-go tickets, and there may be 10 items on one individual to-go ticket,” he said. “There may be only two people inside waiting 45 minutes for a burger.”
Before the pandemic, Worley said he had never witnessed a high level of upset customers at his business. After working long hours six days a week and not making any progress, he made a tough choice.
On Wednesday, Sept. 30, The Collegiate Grill temporarily closed.
"I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath mentally,” Worley said. “I was working so tirelessly that I couldn’t pause and identify what the problem was. It was a Wednesday morning, and I called Donna and said, ‘I can’t do it.’”
During their temporary closure, Worley said both he and his wife have been able to focus on the restaurant’s renovations — including redoing its floors — and decide how to restructure the business.
Worley said right now they are considering only taking to-go orders Monday through Friday and opening the restaurant on Saturdays for in-house dining only.
By early December, the co-owners aim to reopen The Collegiate Grill.
“We look forward to a very sunny bright and optimistic future,” Worley said. “We’re really excited about the improvements we’re making. We’ve just got to navigate through COVID like we’ve navigated through everything else.”