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Ooltewah café keeps it country for 20 years

Countryside Café on Mahan Gap Road at Ooltewah-Georgetown Road is just what its name implies: country.

“People don’t mind driving to the country for country food,” said Marlene Geren, an Ooltewah native who owns and operates the restaurant with her husband, Ponder. “It’s working for us.”

The restaurant’s remote location has proven to be the opposite of a business killer since it opened in May 1990.

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Countryside Café owners Ponder and Marlene Geren, seated, center, are a staple in the world of Ooltewah home cooking. From left are David Geren, Jan Cox, Betty Scott, Gregg Graves, Ashly Simmons, Tracy Gray, Andrea Nation, Vickie Brogdon, Sandy Owens and Bobby Stewart.

“It’s kind of funny here on a Friday night,” \ Geren said. “We have people walk in and say, ‘We’ve got 20.’ And we say, ‘We can take care of you.’ ”

She said lately the cozy dining room has developed a short wait Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

“But we are pretty efficient, I have to say,” she said. “People come here for the food, and they know it’s reasonable and fast.”

Geren said skillet-fried okra and skillet-fried sweet potatoes, her grandmother’s recipe, come hot out of the kitchen all day, every day.

“That’s kind of one of our trademarks because people come here for that,” she said.

Countryside serves Broasted chicken breast — deep fried under high pressure to give it a velvety, crisp skin. Chicken livers get the same treatment, and best-selling desserts include homemade coconut cream pie, chocolate cream pie and strawberry shortcake.

“I can’t really go anywhere else and order strawberry shortcake because ours is so good,” said employee Ashly Simmons.

Sandy Owens cooks the daily specials. Wednesdays she makes chicken and dumplings from scratch, and she won’t leave her pot of boiling noodles for anything.

“If you just let them set there they’ll disappear,” she said.

Weight Watchers and South Beach Diet guides to the Countryside menu are on each table. Countryside encourage kids to eat by giving out mini M&Ms — if plates are clean and it’s OK with parents.

Geren said she learned a lot from her parents, David and Imogene Green, who opened the Kreme House in 1976.

That restaurant served ice cream, hamburgers and hot dogs and was the first restaurant in Ooltewah, Geren said, “even before Hardee’s.”

“My parents had some good recipes for home cooking,” Geren said. “A lot of what we cook is from my mom and my grandmother.”

Made-from-scratch home cooking is important to the Gerens, though it may cost a little more and take a little more time.

“We know the difference and we hope our customers know the difference,” said Geren.

A troop of women peels 150 pounds of potatoes and 80 pounds of sweet potatoes every afternoon, and a local farmer buys the peels to feed his horses.

“We got little old ladies that love to peel potatoes,” Geren said.

The Gerens said their community has taken good care of them over the years and they try to return the favor.

“It’s not all about making money,” Geren said. “There’s an awful lot you do to help.”

Woodland Park Baptist Church brings a busload of homeless people to Countryside Cafe once a month, and Countryside proudly hires within the community and supports local schools.

They pay attention when customers come in four and five times a week.

“We get to know their lives and they get to know ours,” Geren said. “You see kids being born. You see their kids growing up. It’s an evolvement of life.”

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