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Longtime Bonanza employees stay until doors close final time

September 29, 2018

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — More than 45 years and some 2 million steaks later, the last ones were coming off Bonanza’s grill this week.

Albert Fears has been at Bonanza Steakhouse since it opened in Tupelo in 1973, a stalwart fixture at that grill, and never at a loss of words.

Until now, during the restaurant’s final days.

“If I’ve been the captain of the ship, Al’s been right there beside me,” said Marshall Cotton, the restaurant’s general manager. “He’s been here every day. Forty-five years behind that grill, working up to 50 hours a week ... that’s a lot of steaks.”

Fears’ smile and ease at mastery of grilling up to 30 steaks at a time haven’t changed, but there’s a sadness now behind it all. Fears shook his head when asked for his thoughts.

“I can’t,” he said.

Cotton, who’s worked at Bonanza for 41 years, patted Fears on his back as he left.

“We’ve been blessed to have employees like Al here,” he said. “And it’s everybody who’s made this thing work. There’s Thomas Payne, our other cook, who has been with us 30 years. They like to call themselves Batman and Robin. Gaye Edwards, our head prep, has been with me more than 30 years. The whole crew, from dishwasher to servers have blessed us.”

A skeleton crew is all that’s left. Some have found other jobs, others are still looking. Those still working are unsure of their next steps.

Bittersweet?

“That’s a good word,” Cotton said. “It’s been hard. The employees — they’re my bothers, my sisters, my kids. They’re family. I raised most of these kids, and that’s the way we’ve looked at it.”

Past employees have dropped by to give their regards. They’ve come in small waves at a time to say ‘hello,’ to reminisce, to thank Cotton and restaurant owner John Mason for giving them jobs through the years.

Edwards, the head prep cook, has been the “rock of the kitchen” during her 35 years at the restaurant. On Tuesday, she was filling dozens of muffin tins with corn bread batter, preparing to fill the popular hot food bar.

She’s sharing none of the recipes, even of the popular fried wings, which have a thick, tasty batter that even a certain Kentucky colonel would likely envy.

“I’ve been here a long time, and I really hate to see the restaurant go,” Edwards said. “I’m going to miss all the customers ... it’s been like family here. All of us have been here a long time. That’s the toughest part.”

Nearby, Amanda Mabry was also doing her part to help get the hot food bar and salad bar ready. Bonanza was her first job, which she landed seven years ago.

With an effervescent smile and personality, Mabry was appreciative of Bonanza’s loyal customers, some two dozen of whom were lined up before the restaurant opened Tuesday.

“I’d like to thank everybody for helping us keep this business as long as we’ve had it,” she said. “They’ll probably see me somewhere in the future. But I’m going to miss Bonanza.”

It’s a sentiment repeated throughout the remaining staff, who have vowed to stick with the restaurant until the doors close for the final time. Cotton and Mason hope to sell as much of the remaining food as possible. Anything left after Sunday’s close will be donated to the Salvation Army.

Mason doesn’t spend as much time at the restaurant as he once did, having battled some health issues over the years. But in these last days of his last restaurant — he once owned a dozen Bonanzas across the country — there’s a likely chance he’ll be there at some point.

And while he’s appreciative of the work of his loyal employees and the patronage of loyal customers, the decision to sell the property wasn’t too difficult to make. Dollar General Corp., working through a regional developer, plans to build a store on the site of the restaurant.

“It’s a good decision, especially with my health, and I’m 84,” Mason said. “But the employees have been the reason for the success of the store, without a doubt.”

Bonanza was the first job for many, like Terran Reedy, who got her start 12 years ago. Now 28, Reedy is obviously disappointed at the restaurant’s closing, but hopes to land on her feet elsewhere soon.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but I’m going to try to get a job with a bank,” she said. “But I’m going to miss Bonanza a lot. Very much so. Everybody here, we’re like a big family. I don’t know if it’s Bonanza I’m going to miss more or the people.”

People like Johnny Bevels, who has been eating at the restaurant for 30 years.

“I came in here to get phone numbers, but it looks like I’m going to have to get a steak,” he said. Bevels is from Woodland, and said he’s made it a routine to eat at the restaurant whenever he’s in Tupelo.

“I’ve even taken Albert fishing,” he said. “I got his phone number so I could take him again.”

It’s that kind of friendship and loyalty that the folks at Bonanza have long fostered and appreciated, which makes closing the restaurant that much more difficult.

“You try to find words, but you don’t know what to say,” Cotton said. “We all realize it’s time ... I hate we have to do what we have to do, but it’s really hard. All good things come to an end.”

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Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, http://djournal.com

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