Most people when they are on a trip will find a memento or two to bring home. Maybe it’s a T-shirt, a mug, a hat or some other small trinket. When J. Gregory Heinike drove down Highway 231 in Bedford County one afternoon, he noticed the sign directing travelers to “historic” Bell Buckle. Heinike accepted the invitation. Instead of bringing home a mug or postcard to provide proof of his visit he bought a café in 1993.

“I just wandered by,” Heinike said. “I pulled in, but there wasn’t a lot going on here. I had no intention of buying anything. I was just being nosey. I wanted to see what was historic about it.

“Anne White-Scruggs was doing some pottery at her Bell Buckle Crafts. A few of the gals like Linda Simmons and Maggie Vaughn had a vision of Bell Buckle being an artsy kind of town. They were trying to make things happen.”

Through the leadership of Scruggs and others in the community the Webb School Arts & Crafts Festival was developed and has become a major fall attraction. The annual Quilt Walk and Daffodil Festival are key events. The RC and MoonPie Festival is the summer highlight.

“I made friends with Anne and she kind of convinced me I would like Bell Buckle,” Heinike said. “I had been in the food business for a lot of years, and I had found if you have a good food experience it draws people in, so I bought the café.”

Heinike admits the café was in “horrible” shape. Not only did he have to revitalize the building, but he had to rejuvenate what people thought about the café.

“No one in the town was making any money at the time,” Heinike said. “I was not too impressed. The town was in horrible shape. In the winter it was the coldest town I had ever been in because no one could afford to heat their buildings.”

The vision
Despite his first impressions of the café and the town, Heinike saw potential. Realizing his vision of a successful eating establishment was not a cheap proposition.

“I have always had a certain amount of vision,” Heinike said. “I don’t know why. I can figure things out. I can see the possibilities. 

“I plucked a lot of money into it, around a grand a week, just to keep it open. There was no business. “
It is hard to imagine with the menu the way it is today that cheese sandwiches helped keep the doors from closing for good.

“People didn’t like the old café because it had been run so poorly before,” Heinike said. “They didn’t want to eat there. Some people didn’t want us here.

“I sold a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches because people thought they would be a safe thing to eat. It was a long slow process, but I always believed in it.”

Heinike didn’t have a lot of help as he worked to make the café become the place he saw in his vision. He persevered despite the early struggles. 

Music to the café’s ears

“We just kept developing it,” Heinike said. “I hosted a radio show from the café that promoted Bell Buckle. We had everyone here from Brenda Lee to Phil Everly to Charlie Louvin. 

“There was a lot of music in this area. There are a lot of songwriters. We had live music at the café many nights. I have always been around songwriters.”

An entrepreneur with varied interests Heinike started Bell Buckle Records on the advice of his friend, John D. Loudermilk, a legendary songwriter known for hits like “Abilene”, “Waterloo” and “Tobacco Road”. Heinike signed Valerie Smith. Working with Smith’s husband, Craig, Heinike managed Valerie’s career. 

“I booked her all over the world,” Heinike said. “She was real instrumental in building up Bell Buckle. 
“She was very popular, especially in Europe. And, she always talked about Bell Buckle when she was on stage. She lived in Bell Buckle then too.”

Heinike soon discovered that music lovers could also be lovers of Bell Buckle. “These people were music lovers, and they come in groups from countries like Germany to Nashville,” Heinike said. “They want to come to Bell Buckle because they heard about it at Valerie’s concerts. I would see Bell Buckle Café T-shirts on people sitting in the front row of concerts in Europe.”

Wide ranging menu

Heinike owned a chain of pizza parlors in Huntsville, Alabama, and he saw the café as a way for him to move out of the city.

“I had developed J. Gregory’s Pizzerias,” Heinike. “But, I wanted to live in a rural area.”

Homemade pizzas, not surprisingly, are a major part of the menu. Also popular are the meat-and-three combinations ranging from meatloaf to chicken dishes. Hamburgers get a thumbs up as well.

“We have a big menu,” Heinike said. “I decided that every side dish should stand on its own two feet. The little things we do are what make us successful.”

Heinike, when he lived in Oklahoma, started in the food industry with delicatessens in Shawnee and Oklahoma City. He then built several Sonic Drive-Ins in the area when he was 26. He sold the Sonics and moved to Panama City where he owned a charter boat and competed in fishing contests. He moved to Huntsville to start the pizzerias.

A family affair
Heinike’s wife, Jeanette, oversees the daily operations of the Bell Buckle Café alongside daughters Heidi and Hillary.

“I was lucky to marry well,” Heinike said. “Jeanette has worked with me from the beginning. When I got sick a few years ago she had to take over. She has done an excellent job. She runs it better than I did.”

Heinike points to Heidi and Hillary as the forces behind the café. His oldest daughter Holly worked there when she was younger. Heather lives in Danville, Kentucky, where she is married to a minister.

“Our daughters weren’t too happy to be coming from Huntsville to Bell Buckle,” Heinike said. “They have made it their home now.“

One of the specialties for diners at the café is the lemonade. “We make the mix here,” Heinike said. “We sell a lot of lemonade. I have to say it has changed over the years. It is a little sweeter now.

“I started selling lemonade in Huntsville. I would set up stands at the Marshall Space and Rocket Center and other places and events. It is a fresh squeezed lemonade. We have become known for it.”

A popular dessert is the oatmeal cake with a warm caramel sauce. A scoop of ice cream is optional. “My daughter, Heidi, is so proud of it,” Heinike said. “That is something she came up with that has contributed to the café’s success. Our grits cake is also popular. Usually, you don’t see restaurants that sell cakes. I still eat the cobblers and ice cream. 

“We have four prep ladies who come in early in the morning to start making things. My daughters make the cakes. There is an art form to making those cakes.”

Horse country
The walls of the café are lined with large business cards, humorous signs and a number of Tennessee Walking Horses photos. The walking horse photos were a surprise addition to the original décor of the café.
“Someone asked my wife if she minded if he put some walking horse photos on the walls,” Heinike said. “She said, `oh no, I didn’t mind.’ She thought it would be great.” Heinike said he had forgotten about the photos until the man dropped off 20 pictures for him to put on the walls.

“We had other things on the walls but worked the pictures in,” Heinike said. “We love the pictures. They add to our atmosphere. There is nothing prettier than those horse pictures.”

Heinike stresses the importance of The Celebration and the Tennessee Walking Horse to the county. “The Tennessee Walking Horse has had a huge impact on the economy,” Heinike said. “We look forward to The Celebration every year. Most of the horse people eat at the café. They are a big part of our community and the surrounding area.

“I didn’t do a lot with The Celebration early on. I was kind of the new boy on the block. But as the café has progressed, we have done more and more with The Celebration. They have been good to us.”

Heinike admits that at the time he purchased the café he was not all that familiar with the Tennessee Walking Horse and the National Celebration.

“I saw the beautiful horse farms,” Heinike said. “I thought the horses looked beautiful out in the pastures. To me that was just a plus…period. It just brings our whole county up a notch in status and I like that.

“I am glad people like it. People always mention how much they enjoy the drive to Bell Buckle from wherever they are coming from. They always comment on the beautiful horse farms. It is definitely a status thing for us.”

A major success
It is difficult to find a day of the week or a time of the day when there is not a line of hungry folks waiting to eat.

Visitors arrive from near and far. The Webb School and the Cascade schools also provide the café with business with regular diners.

“It amazed me even when we when closed the inside dining for COVID-19 people still wanted food from the café,” Heinike said. “We put four phone lines in to keep up with the carry out business.

“I kept everyone on even though we were closed. People were so generous. The tips for our waitresses who manned the phones were almost as good as the ones they received when they were working tables inside. People were afraid they were going to lose the café.”

Heinike, who has done his share of promotion of the café and Bell Buckle credits,  positive “word of mouth” comments for attracting so many diners. The response during the pandemic was a surprise to him.

“It was heartwarming,” Heinike said. “I had always seen the lines of people waiting to eat but I didn’t realize how important the café was to them until the pandemic. It was a tremendous feeling.

“I never had any intention of having a restaurant this popular. I didn’t want it too big.

“I have always been a food designer,” Heinike said. “ I just wanted a little café where I could keep my hand in it because I enjoyed developing new recipes.”

Heinike also owns and operates the Bell Buckle Banquet Hall, which is booked solid as much as a year in advance. His latest addition is an event center for smaller events which was located in a building close to the banquet hall that housed a tearoom and gift shop. 

“It has been a wonderful journey,” Heinike said. “My family has worked very hard to produce quality food and provide quality service.”

Heinike is also a gifted artist, and he was taught when it comes to painting and drawings that simple is always best. He takes the same approach with the food at the café.

“Most off my recipes are what I cooked at home,” Heinike said. “I have never liked gourmet cooking. I have always wanted to keep my food simple and tasty.

“We have always tried to do what people want us to do. We don’t say `no’ much. It has always worked out.”