BRIDGEVILLE — When Michelle Dolly, a self-described “early bird,” shows up for work at Jimmy’s Grille at 5:15 a.m., a knot of hungry farmers is already waiting outside.
After helping Dolly take down the chairs, they sip coffee, catch up and cut up. It’s a morning ritual at the rambling blue-awninged Bridgeville landmark that started out life as a Tastee-Freez and expanded piecemeal in all directions.
Upscale vacationers might soon begin their days the same way, because Jimmy’s is expanding eastward to Del. 1 this month.
The original Jimmy’s, with its $3.50 breakfast platters and its $3.95 bowls of cream of crab soup, is so popular that there’s a line around the building for six hours on Mother’s Day. The see-through revolving cake case features supersized homemade deserts.
Customers drift in wearing motorcycle helmets, madras shirts and khaki Bermudas, jeans and New Balance sneakers, and, on weekends, church clothes. Some regulars tote their own Tupperware containers because the portions are so big.
Many, like 92-year-old retired chicken chaser Raymond Taylor, eat there every day.
“I found out I eat cheaper here than I can home cooking,” Taylor said. “It’s a place you can come and you can have fellowship. The food’s good. They give you plenty. And they have good-looking waitresses.”
Dubbed an iconic Delaware restaurant by the Delaware Tourism Office, Jimmy’s features milk from Lewes, sausage from Harrington, clams from Milford, asparagus from Bridgeville and the list goes on. There’s a different dumpling special daily, plus a minimum of 17 side dishes, from corn pudding to stewed tomatoes.
Seattle attorney Jason Davis, who first discovered Jimmy’s when he took a wrong turn somewhere between D.C. and Chincoteague in 2005, said his first impression was “a totally nondescript diner in the middle of nowhere on the side of a highway, the sort of place most people, including myself, would normally drive right by on my way to more attractive settings.”
“It was pouring rain. We’re were lost and we were starving. It was looking very bleak, and then we found it,” he said. “It was delicious.”
The Amazon attorney liked it so well that he’s made it back every year since. He even wrote about Jimmy’s on his blog: “The thing is, Jimmy’s Grille is probably the best American diner I’ve been to,” he wrote. “I’m not sure whether I go to the beach and stop at Jimmy’s Grille, or if I go to Jimmy’s Grille and stop at the beach.” He sometimes orders a bag of dinner rolls for the road.
Jimmy hasn’t been in the building since founder Jimmy Tennefoss sold out to Alex Pires’ six-restaurant Highway One Group in 2006. Under Highway One, Jimmy’s employs 150 workers at the original store, the seven-year-old seasonal Jimmy’s in Dewey Beach and soon Rehoboth. About 16 percent are full time.
Pires, who looks more Hollywood than Bridgeville, said homemade products are the future, so Jimmy’s makes most dishes from scratch now. He pushes scratch dishes because they sell well, not because of any affinity for real-food gurus like Mark Bittman. “I don’t even know who that guy is. I’m no foodie,” he said. “I don’t know anything about that, but I felt for quite some time that Jimmy’s would do better and better if we made more of the food ourselves.”
To that end, the original Jimmy’s has huge pots simmering on the stove all day and Pires leaves the food decisions to Highway One executive chef Pete McMahon, who learned his skills in Taos, Vail and Rehoboth’s Blue Moon.
To accommodate McMahon’s scratch menu, the Jimmy’s set to open in Rehoboth features a kitchen that’s nearly half the house — compared with an average of 20 percent.
When the new store opens, McMahon will have finished integrating an app that will allow customers to order ahead. “Home replacement meals are going to be huge for Jimmy’s in Rehoboth,” he said. “When you operate at the beach, you have 100 days to make all your money, so, once you open, you have to hit the ground running.”
The new building will have a QSR point-of-sale system with computers at each station to streamline orders because they expect a crush of orders. “It’s going to be Bridgeville prices in Rehoboth,” McMahon said.
With a restaurant slogan of “Peace, Love, and Fried Chicken,” McMahon contracted for local never-ever chicken — chicken that has no antibiotics during the entire course of its life and no salt pumped in. He said Jimmy’s can negotiate lower prices on high-end chicken because they buy large volumes for six Highway One restaurants, and they can afford to make just a small profit on each sale because last year Jimmy’s sold a quarter-million pieces of chicken.
The new Rehoboth store will feature a bar, restaurant, music stage, bakery and a gift shop featuring Delaware products, including locally made candy from two Lewes chocolatiers.
What it won’t have is a façade that looks like Cracker Barrel. The chain pressed a trademark infringement suit last year claiming the new Jimmy’s was designed to look like a Cracker Barrel. Attorneys for Cracker Barrel and Highway One settled the suit in February. Pires joked about it at a Wilmington business event where he encouraged entrepreneurs to copy good ideas.
The private company won’t reveal sales, but Jimmy’s Manager Yelena Kretova said the original Jimmy’s alone serves 800 to 900 people on an average summer weekend, and the side-by-side catering operation handles 10 parties for 50 to 500 guests on a peak-season Saturday. Jimmy’s catered 110 weddings and 152 business events in 2015. “We’re also last-minute funeral caterers,” Kretova said. “We can put a funeral together for 150 people on 24-hour notice.”
While Jimmy’s expands eastward, the mainstay is the original Jimmy’s in Bridgeville, were sales are buoyed by beach traffic but Delawareans are file in all year round.
“They support us through the wintertime when we don’t have the beach traffic. They’re what keeps us alive — the regulars,” said Dolly, who singlehandedly writes checks for between $700 and $850 daily. “Most of the people come in every day. I know where they’re going to sit . I know what they’re going to eat, and I know what they’re going to drink.”
When a regular pulls into the parking lot, anyone who spots him calls to a waitress to get his order started.
Pires and McMahon have more Jimmy’s up their sleeve. Pires said there are no plans to expand beyond Delaware though.
“There’s always plans for more,” McMahon said. “We want to get the Rehoboth one up and running first. Then, it’s back to the drawing table.”