The Smokey Valley Diner
By TIM PRESTON - The Independent SMOKEY VALLEY — In a truck stop with no fuel for sale, a group of hard-working people is learning about what happens after a visit from a Food Network celebrity. Smokey Valley Truck Stop, off of I-64 at Olive Hill, is featured in the “Like Mama Made” episode of the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” which will air again tonight at 11:30 and several more times during the week following. Truck stop owner Juanita Flannery said she had not watched the show when first contacted by producers, although she has since learned the show’s host, Guy Fieri, has a large and loyal following. “We’ve had calls from all over the country. There are some people who just like going where he’s been,” Flannery said with a giggle, later adding it didn’t take long to figure out several of the Food Network’s show hosts have true celebrity status. “We just had a couple in here from Texas. They were in Huntington where they had filmed and they told them he had stopped here. That’s what a following he has,” she said. Flannery is genuinely baffled about why the show chose her restaurant, and recalls she told them, “It’s just food. We don’t have any gimmick. We don’t have anything special,” when first contacted by telephone. She is, however, pleased with the way the show portrayed the business. “I thought they did a marvelous job with what they had to work with,” she said, smiling and sitting during a rare break in customers. “I think they were just in this area looking for a place to film.” It isn’t a fancy place. Smokey Valley Truck Stop is cozy, with many large tables, a gumball machine, a couple of coolers, a pair of video games and a jukebox. The food, and the friendly people who prepare and serve it, are the obvious reasons why people have been recommending the place to friends for years. The business will celebrate its 30th anniversary in August. When they went into business for themselves, Flannery and her late husband, Bennie, were simply struggling to figure out a way to survive after he lost his job at a nearby brick plant. “We had no money,” she said, shaking her head slightly before noting, “I had never even worked at a restaurant.” They leased a small restaurant on the other side of Olive Hill and worked the business for seven years before partners helped them build the current location. The staff, and members of the Flannery family, have been going almost nonstop since. Flannery’s son, Rick, still works there, and her daughter, Diana, was on duty until she had her first child. Flannery says neither of her children “ever” want to take complete control, and that Rick jokes he will have her cremated there. They’ve collected a few stories along the way and been visited by a few famous people, including Willie Nelson (whose bus had brake problems and Bennie helped repair it, earning backstage passes for his concert that night in Huntington), the band Alabama and the famous Budweiser Clydesdales. “They didn’t get out and come in,” she said of the famous horses. Despite the name, the truck stop isn’t actually in Smokey Valley, although the community seems to have expanded its boundaries to include it, Flannery said. The nature of the business has changed considerably since the early days. “We did sell a lot of fuel back then,” she recalled, then pondered if the fuel business would be worth the effort in today’s market. The truck stop is also an unusual place in that nobody will say a word or even look at you funny if you want to smoke a cigarette inside, even though you won’t find any form of tobacco products for sale there. When they stopped selling cigarettes and other tobacco, Flannery said it was an unpopular decision that angered many people. “For me, it was such a conscious thing,” Flannery said, explaining the policy is much more accepted today than it was nearly two decades ago. One of the business’ greatest setbacks happened during a storm in the mid-1980s. “I had just sat down and I heard this terrible type of thunder and a jolt,” Flannery remembered. While rainwater and flooding was believed to be the problem, the truck stop had actually been hit by lightning, which followed a conduit along the lines between the fuel tanks and pumps and knocked a section of foundation blocks halfway back under the floor. “The lightning followed it to that spot and just blasted it,” she said, pointing to the place where the damage happened. They needed to get back to business quickly, she said, remembering that was when her husband built the long, wide tables still on duty in the truck stop. “The girls who were out of work came down and did the varnish work,” she said. “They wanted to get back to work, too.” The Food Network show shines a spotlight on the truck stop’s coconut cream pie, and reveals a little bit of vodka as the secret ingredient. She giggles like a schoolgirl when she says she called Sheriff Kevin “Mooch” McDavid to make sure she wasn’t breaking any laws with the unusual pie ingredient, and reports he laughed and said he may have to keep an eye on the place. Adding the small amount of clear liquor to the pie was a method discovered by accident, Flannery said, and is purely a matter of flavor. There is much more to taste than just the pie. At a glance, country cooking is their specialty and Flannery says she is always open to suggestions for the menu. A favorite for many regular customers is the Smokey Valley Burger with Cheese, a true two-fisted double patty that occupies the better part of the platter it is served on. Flannery says she would have to check records to calculate how many they serve in a week or a month. Local people, as well as students from Kentucky Christian University and Morehead State, are among their most appreciated patrons, along with the truck drivers who still stop there, even though they have to go somewhere else to fill their tanks. The truck stop is always open, except from 9 p.m. Saturday to 5 a.m. Sunday, when they close and tackle tasks concentrated on cleaning the equipment and taking care of the place. Flannery said her staff, which includes a lady who has worked there for 24 years, another with 20 years on the payroll and yet another beyond the 14-year mark, is the critical ingredient to keeping Smokey Valley Truck Stop’s customers happy. “I have a very loyal staff. They are great,” she said. TIM PRESTON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (606) 326-2651.
Submitted by Mike Barker