It took 50 minutes to get a table at the Pancake Pantry on a chilly autumn morning. You might think that’s crazy but the atmosphere, friendly staff, fast service, and amazing food was worth every minute. When I left an hour after getting a table I was energized and ready to spend my day in Gatlinburg.
The Pancake Pantry is an icon for breakfast in Gatlinburg, and a destination for pancake lovers. The massive building seats over two hundred people but by 9 a.m. a line wraps around the side of the building as people wait for a table. The line itself has become infamous as early risers drive down Parkway and wonder what is happening.
The popular restaurant was opened in 1960 when Jim and June Gerding decided Gatlinburg, with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park nearby, was the perfect place for Tennessee’s first pancake house. Just a year earlier Jim had visited his first pancake house at the San Francisco airport and thought it was a wonderful idea. In 1974 the current building opened for breakfast and lunch and the rest is delicious history.
The service is fast, though. I finally got my table near the middle of the restaurant at 10:25. Five minutes later the friendly waitress took my order. Two minutes after that my coffee arrived, and just eights minutes after that I had my pile of banana coconut cream pancakes. By 10:40 I was happily chomping down.
During my first visit to the pancake house I caught up with Jim to ask him about the history of the restaurant. He looked down at the empty plate with remnants of blueberries (I had the blueberry pancakes during my first visit) and asked, “Do you want to know where those blueberries came from?” With a look of excitement on his face and passion in his voice Jim told me about a trip to Nova Scotia, Canada years ago where he discovered a blueberry farm. The farm straddled the U.S./Canadian border with the blueberries grown in both countries but the offices and facility in Canada. He’s been importing the blueberries from that farm ever since.
Additional Reading: 36 Hours in Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Jim took me a on a brief tour of the kitchen where I watched close to a dozen cooks flipping pancakes, pouring soup, and grilling sandwiches. It was a well-oiled cooking machine as the meticulously selected ingredients came together quickly to prepare almost any meal in less than ten minutes. Waitresses would carry away a plate of food to a hungry guest and would have another plate to carry by the time she returned.
Despite the long wait to get inside people just won’t stop coming here. I did a quick and highly unscientific survey of the other guests surrounding my table one day and learned that everyone there was a repeat customer. I’m a repeat customer myself; I have eaten breakfast here at least one morning during every trip I’ve taken to Gatlinburg or the national park.
A few times I have seen Jim working the tables himself. Setting paper placement and silverware, he is just as quick and efficient as people half his age. He was ready for retirement the first time I met him in 2013. Before I left that day he took me on a tour of the Village Shops next door. He built the shopping center after completing the new Pancake Pantry in 1974, but this is no ordinary shopping center. Unique shops, name brand outlets, and delicious boutiques are just a few of the reasons to come. For me it’s all about the architecture: Jim traveled the country looking for wrought iron fences, chandeliers, gorgeous glass bricks, and unique windows and doors during the construction.
It’s the perfect combination for a day in Gatlinburg: delicious and fulfilling breakfast at the Pancake Pantry, then shopping at the Village Shops. It’s a morning routine that never fails to satisfy me.
As for Jim, I hope he’s been able to convince himself to retire by now. He certainly deserves it after the wonderful business he brought to Gatlinburg. The city has grown over the decades and the national park is more popular than ever, but right at the heart of Parkway is the Pancake Pantry, just like it has been since 1960.