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50 years of service to the community — The story of Joey’s Pancake House  (Part One)

By Paul Viau | Apr 13, 2016
Photo by: O'Keefe family photo BACK IN THE DAY — Pictured are Joey and Brenda O'Keefe, enjoying some off-season R&R on a cruise, circa 1978.

In case you haven’t noticed, Maggie Valley’s iconic breakfast place — Joey’s Pancake House, is open for yet another season. But this year is a real milestone for owner, Brenda O’Keefe — it’s Joey’s 50th season.

Yes, it was the summer of 1966 (as in Route 66) that Joey and Brenda O’Keefe traveled the winding mountain roads to visit friends in Maggie Valley, fell in love with this quaint mountain community (just as quickly as they had fallen in love) and opened what would become Maggie Valley’s signature breakfast spot.

The two (Brenda and Joey) had met at the Fontainebleau Hotel, in Florida, where they both worked and cut their chops in the hospitality industry.

By strange coincidence, just 20 years later in 1986, the Fontainebleau Hilton (as it had been renamed) was the first advertising account I worked on after moving to Miami as a creative director.

The Fontainebleau was the grandest of the grand hotels on Miami Beach, with a reputation for great customer service and recognized world-wide for its fine dining. The Fontainebleau was a tough and demanding client, and wouldn’t settle for anything but the best work.

No doubt, both Joey and Brenda had gained that valuable business acumen during their time at the Fontainebleau, because Joey’s Pancake House was a success from day one.

In 1966, Joey’s was quite a bit smaller than it is today. The original white frame building that was the first home for Joey’s still stands — across the street and a few blocks west on Soco Road, and is now Murphy Garland Fellowship Hall for St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church — where I have slung a few pancakes myself.

As luck would have it during Joey and Brenda’s first visit, that building was for sale, and already equipped as a small restaurant. They leased the building, married soon thereafter at a small church in Maggie Valley, and opened Joey’s Restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Yes, in the beginning, Joey’s Pancake House was open all day, but only during the spring, summer and fall tourist seasons. This fit perfectly with Joey’s lifetime goal of, “…being in Florida the six months out of the year.”

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the manufacturing and textile industries in North Carolina flourished and families would flock Maggie Valley year after year for vacation. Ghost Town in the Sky was the biggest draw, attracting 10,000 tourists a day during the summer months. Joey’s became one of the most popular places to feed their appetites.

Did you know? — In Joey’s early years the servers, many of them high school and college age, would dress in Native American costumes.

“The more we looked like real Indians, the better the tips,” remembers Helen Henry of Waynesville, whose late husband was also a “Joey.”

Joey’s (and its employees) prospered during those years — Joey and Brenda made sure of that. And it wasn’t too long before they needed a larger restaurant. As luck would have it, the neighboring Howard-Johnson’s Restaurant was vacant and available. The O’Keefes bought the building and for a short time operated from both locations, eventually settling in to the building you now know as the one and only, Joey’s Pancake House. You know, the one with the big crowd of people waiting to get in.

What you may not know, is that then and now, the O’Keefes have always held Joey’s Pancake House to the highest of standards and looked after their employees like they were family.

“I want Joey’s to be a benefit to the community,” Brenda O’Keefe told me during our interview, as she proudly shared story after story about customers returning to Joey’s year after year — with their children, then grandchildren and some even with their great-grandchildren.

Joey’s is its own happy community — a place to gather, connect, reunite, grow, prosper — And all the while, being pampered by Joey’s staff as they serve-up the best, pancakes, waffles, biscuits, bacon and eggs money can buy. (Did I forget to mention the amazing hash-brown casserole?)

This kind of restaurant experience doesn’t happen very often, nor last 50 years. Next week, I’ll tell you how this doesn’t happen by accident.

(This is the first in a two-part series of columns commemorating Joey’s 50 years in Maggie Valley).