“I don’t know what we’d do without them,” says Hal Carmack, co-founder of local fast food icon, Pal’s. At 85, Carmack has led a varied and unpredictable life – one full of character, much like the restaurants whose very fabric he’s crafted. That fabric is unforgettable: Buildings painted in bright yellows and, more recently, sea foam greens, act as backdrops to the larger-than-life hotdogs, burgers, and fries greeting hungry customers. Carmack spent time on Vaudeville, Broadway, and Hollywood – but those stages, too, have acted as backdrops to a bigger plan. It’s what led Carmack to the restaurant business, Pal Barger, and Johnson Hilliard – owners of his earlier, emphatic “them.”
Carmack, a one-time owner of a dinner theatre chain, built his relationship with Pal’s – and, in turn, Johnson Hilliard – quite naturally. Pal Barger, cousin to Carmack, is the restaurant’s namesake and founder: “At first, it was just Pal and me. Then, we got so many stores and Pal’d be out of town, and so people would call me and ask, ‘What about this and what about this?’” recalls Carmack. “Look, I don’t operate these things. I build them,” he said. That key distinction brought Carmack to Johnson Hilliard. Today, their metalwork helps to make Pal’s a “Sudden Service” machine: From enter and exit signs to condiment holders and hangers to the giant cup and fry, Johnson Hilliard is the anchor for this chain.
“It’s a tradition,” says Carmack, speaking on the three generations of Johnson Hilliard. “They’re one of a kind.” For Carmack, it’s a tradition in the truest sense: “Ben’s granddaddy and I were in the Kiwanis Club together…he got into Johnson Hilliard when it was Johnson and Hilliard, then when they passed on, he took it over,” explains Carmack. He adds, “I worked with Ben’s dad – well, I’m still working with him. We just love Ben. And Billy, he’s the one that is gonna be hard [to replace]. I don’t know where we’ll go, you know?”
For Carmack, the only place to go is forward – and only with Johnson Hilliard by his side. With plans to build new Pal’s stores in Jefferson City, Tennessee, and Erwin, Tennessee, this year, he will readily rely on their expertise to get the job done quickly, efficiently, and correctly. Carmack declares, “I can call on them. If I needed something this afternoon, then…I could usually get it.” He credits Johnson Hilliard’s “genius” employees as a driving force behind Pal’s success: “[They’re] the best in the country. They understand what we want and all we have to do is give them measurements and explain [what we need].”
That relationship is a mutually beneficial one – and Carmack appreciates it relentlessly. He says, “I’ll endorse them 1000 percent. Of all the subs and everything I have, I’d have to put them on top.” Bright blue eyes sparkling, he reminisces, “It’s just been, you know, a great association.” And, with Johnson Hilliard at Ben’s helm, Carmack is confident it’s one that will only continue to grow.