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Johnson City’s Shamrock Still Making the Shakes at 90

Fred Sauceman • Jan 16, 2019 at 10:30 AM

One of Northeast Tennessee’s oldest food and beverage businesses turns 90 this year. The Shamrock in Johnson City opened on St. Patrick’s Day in 1929. Two years later, as the Great Depression was gripping the country, Lafe Cox bought the business. His son Jack Cox runs it today, along with Jack’s wife Sheila.

Lafe had worked for Liggett’s, a drugstore on the corner of Main and Roan in Johnson City. Like a lot of businesses at that time, The Shamrock had fallen into debt. Jack says his father talked to the creditors and assumed the debt, which Lafe and his wife Ethelyn soon paid off.

“It was a Rexall store back then, a typical drugstore,” Jack tells me. “I’m sure they had ice cream and sandwiches, like hot dogs and pimento cheese. They made their own syrups for fountain drinks, and they had curb service, with curb hops.”

The Shamrock survives in that very same location, at the corner of West Walnut Street and Buffalo. Curb service is gone. Most customers walk inside to order or drive up to the window. New sandwiches have been added, but the menu remains largely unchanged.

It’s the only place I know where you can buy chicken salad sandwiches and slaw dogs alongside Golden Virginia Burley pipe tobacco and Arturo Fuente cigars.

In 1971, when Jack remodeled the business, he began selling house-made lemonade. He intended it to be a warm weather offering, but when cold weather hit, customers still demanded the drink. Although Jack introduced lemonade some 40 years after his family acquired the business, it turns out that he was not new to lemonade sales.

“Tom McKee and I, when we were kids, had a lemonade stand in Gilmer Park,” Jack remembers. “And The Shamrock is nothing but an expanded, glorified lemonade stand.”

Jack can squeeze about 165 lemons in an hour. He says it keeps his arm strong for trout fishing. Jack and his employees, whom he constantly praises, make a game out of squeezing lemons, seeing who can squeeze the most in a minute.

Over the years, Jack has become an expert on lemons. He points out that their acidity can vary by the season. Once he detected a latent orange flavor in some juice, and it gave him an idea. He added some freshly squeezed orange juice to his lemonade and offered that as an option for customers. It took off.

“Tart lemon, sweet orange,” says Jack. “And it was delicious. I think it’s one of the best drinks there is.”

Jack takes me through a labyrinth of hallways, stairs, and doors to what has become known as The Back Room, where lemon squeezing machines from the past 47 years are on display.

As that 1971 remodeling was taking place, Jack bought an adjoining laundry building, thinking he could use the additional space for an employee break room. Instead, it became a gathering place for the city’s politicos, professors, and professional loafers. Football and basketball coaches from East Tennessee State University hold forth there. Former Sen. Bill Frist has been a guest. Although the space feels like a 1960s fallout shelter, it has become an obligatory stop for anyone in the area who is running for office.

Chess matches take place in The Back Room. Family birthday parties are held there. A belly dancer once entertained the clientele. Near a fairly modern copy machine sits a donated television with rabbit ear antennae, covered with aluminum foil. “We can pick up a few ballgames on it and some news,” Jack says.

Two of the driving forces behind the longevity of The Shamrock are the work ethic and the wisdom of Jack Cox. He says he owes his work ethic to his wife, his parents, grandparents, employees, teachers, football coaches, Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church, and his children, Elizabeth, Caroline, Jackson, and Morgan. “It’s a team effort,” he says.

Visit The Shamrock and you’ll likely hear some Jack Cox philosophy.

Jack Cox on milkshakes: “A milkshake a week won’t hurt you at all. We use whole milk, real syrup, and real ice cream.”

Jack Cox on tobacco: “I won’t sell anything I don’t try, so I’ve chewed, I’ve smoked a pipe, and it’s largely cigars now. There’s nothing more relaxing than to have a quality cigar and some type of beverage, out of doors, of course. A little puff and a little sip. Don’t get in a hurry. A good cigar will take you, if you do it the way you’re supposed to, 45 minutes to an hour.”

Jack Cox on the rewards of doing business: “Hardly a week goes by without a former employee coming by. Someone left a business card the other day and said he used to work here, and he was so glad that we were still here. People ask me when I’m going to retire. It’s still an awful lot of fun to come to work.”

As Johnson City celebrates its sesquicentennial, we raise a glass of lemonade and say “Happy 90th Birthday” to the little shop on the corner. Long live The Shamrock!

The Shamrock Beverage and Tobacco Shop is located at 300 West Walnut Street in Johnson City. You can call them at (423) 926-8511.

Fred Sauceman’s latest book is “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”

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