Life junctions led Mike Graham to Jukebox Junction

By Julianne Kuykendall | Feb 12, 2013
Photo by: Julianne Kuykendall FACE BEHIND THE JUKE BOX: Mike Graham, owner of The Jukebox Junction in Bethel, is pictured by the restaurant’s iconic old-fashioned jukebox. Graham’s family includes his wife, Carol, their three children Geoff, Samantha and Joshua, and their three grandchildren – Michael, Madison and Charlotte Rose. Graham attributes the success of the restaurant to the dedicated local faces that helped the business survive the twin floods of September 2004.

Mike Graham, owner of The Jukebox Junction 1950s diner-style restaurant in the Bethel community, says three different “junctions” in his life ultimately led him to being “home” at The Jukebox Junction along the Pigeon River.

“It was one of those things that was just meant to be,” said Graham, as he reflected on his life story.

When Graham opens up the restaurant at 7 a.m., he is certainly not a hands-off type of owner, but he gets right in there in the kitchen and dining room, working alongside his employees, because he knows what it’s like. After he graduated from North Branford High School in 1977 in North Branford, Conn., he worked two jobs – one as a shift supervisor at Friendly’s Restaurant and the other fueling transfer trucks at a local truck stop.

Then, he moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. in 1978 and began working for Denny’s restaurants where he gained experience for 20 years – as a general manager, district training manager and district troubleshooter.

While those two decades of Graham’s life taught him the restaurant ropes, he often grew tired of big corporate decisions which seemed to favor treating hourly employees more like commodities rather than human beings, Graham explained.

“It was definitely stressful, especially being woken up at 3 a.m. and hearing that two waitresses walked out and quit or the restaurant was robbed or the cook was drunk,” he added.

It was in times like those that Graham dreamed of owning his own restaurant.

When he was offered an opportunity to teach culinary arts at Dunellon High School in Dunellon, Fla., he scooped up the chance of having that personal, one-on-one contact with students who had a true passion for cooking.

One particular student named Aaron especially inspired him. Graham could see in his eyes an obvious thirst for knowledge about culinary arts, so he took him “under his wing.”

“I was very proud of Aaron because he got a scholarship to Johnson & Wells, a renowned culinary arts school in Miami, Fla., and now works as a food and beverage director at the Hilton in Destin, Fla.,” said Graham.

It was students like Aaron that motivated Graham to finally pursue his own personal dream of owning his own restaurant. So, when his wife, Carol, wanted to move to the mountains of North Carolina to be closer to her parents, Graham began searching for restaurants to purchase.

He was tying up plans to purchase a restaurant in Asheville, but something inside him didn’t feel right about making that final decision, so he decided to browse restaurant openings just one more time.

That’s when he saw the ad.

“I remember exactly what it said: ‘On Pigeon River at the base of Cold Mountain, 5 miles from Springdale Country Club,’” Graham remembered. “I had visited my in-laws here in the summers so I knew it was the Juke Box, only five minutes from their house.”

“It was meant to be,” he added.

When he purchased The Jukebox Junction in March 2004, he made the decision to operate with a business philosophy focused on “people over profit” as he transitioned from working in a corporate atmosphere to operating a small, tight-knit community restaurant.

However, he had no idea how the people in his newfound community would ultimately help him when the twin floods of September 2004 ravaged his restaurant.

He still refers to that horrible month as “Flood-tember.”

“I remember one day when the floods were rising, somebody yelled, ‘The dam at Lake Logan is getting ready to break’ and everybody cleared out,” recalled Graham, adding that, in the flood aftermath, his dumpster was lodged behind a local bridge, his hot water heater ended up somewhere in Tennessee, his basement was flooded and two feet of mud covered his back parking lot.

“I never will forget that because one of my regular customers, Kenneth Henson, cleared the mud out of my parking lot for me and wouldn’t take anything for it,” recalled Graham. “It was during that time being new to the community that I really found out how neighborly and helpful people were.”

During those next ten months of the nearby bridge being closed for repair which eliminated drive-by traffic, Graham struggled to keep the doors open, often scratching his head while balancing the business checkbook.

“I decided after we survived that, we could survive anything,” he said.

Still today, Graham appreciates those local customers which helped his business stay afloat during that first super-challenging year – regular local faces like David Rathbone and Tommy Clark who take down the chairs every morning before eating their traditional Juke Box breakfast.

In addition to focusing on “people over profit” with his customers, Graham thinks the same way about his employees, even providing health insurance to his full-time employees, a sacrificial decision almost unheard of in a small restaurant business. In fact, he made the tough decision to open on Sundays at the beginning of 2013 to help compensate for rising healthcare costs.

“It’s almost in-human how so many corporations treat their employees, so I really wanted to treat my employees as human beings,” he said.

To do that, he tries to create a relaxed, positive atmosphere where employees feel free to express their own unique personalities. “I think the key is to not micromanage employees because I want them to take as much ownership and pride in the business that I do,” he explained.

Jamie Blazer, who was the first employee Graham hired when he bought the business and is now working as a lead cook while finishing up nursing school, stopped for a second during a busy dinner rush to sum up her thoughts about working alongside Graham.

“He’s like my Dad,” she easily stated before returning to the kitchen to cook.

The Jukebox Junction is open Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. To contact Graham, call 648-4546.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Linda Sexton | Feb 12, 2013 08:16

If you have not been to the Jukebox Junction, you have missed a great place.  Not only do they have good food, handmade malts (my 97 yr. old mother-in-law's favorite); the entire staff makes you feel welcome.  It is not the robotic welcome of the chain restaurants, it is the welcome like you have just walked in to a friend's home.  So glad that it is one of the 3 wonderful local restaurants we have here in Bethel.

Posted by: Gail Heathman | Feb 13, 2013 08:17

Each summer we bring our YES (Youth Environmental Stewardship) Camp kids by on the last day of camp after a day in the mountains. They're treated to free ice cream cones, which are wonderful on a hot June day. A number of people have become part of helping our camp be a memorable experience for the kids, and Mike is an important part of that group.

Gail Heathman

Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District

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