Pal's Sudden Service: 12 Facts About The Fast Food Chain

Pal's Sudden Service is an award-winning quick-service restaurant chain centered around Kingsport, Tennessee. The first location was founded in the downtown core of the city in 1956 by Fred "Pal" Barger Jr. (via Johnson City Press). In addition to delicious food, Pal's is known for its truly speedy service and envious business model. Not only are Pal's customers pleased, but employees are generally satisfied working there too, according to Indeed

The regional fast food chain delivers quality and attentive service and ensures employees are knowledgeable and feel supported. No, it's not magic, but it also isn't an easy feat. Nearly three-quarters of a century of good business sense, careful management, and sincere dedication to customer service have steered Pal's Sudden Service into one of the most successful restaurant chains in the United States.

Whether you're already a fan or are a newbie eager to know Pal's secrets, here are facts about this popular restaurant icon.

Founder Fred Pal Barger Jr. was inspired by Ray Kroc

The National Restaurant Association, an advocate and resource for the industry, has its annual exposition show in Chicago to bring together professionals and innovators from all aspects of the restaurant world. According to the Kingsport tourism website, Fred "Pal" Barger Jr. attended the show before he opened his own restaurant. At the event, he met fast food revolutionary Ray Kroc, of McDonald's fame.

Shortly after, Barger began to plan his own restaurant, Pal's Sudden Service, which he opened in Kingsport, Tennessee. The concept is simple; most locations are drive-thru only (the original site lacks a drive-thru window) and the menu is mainly limited to burgers, hot dogs, fries, and milkshakes. 

Rather than going the franchise route, which made McDonald's and other fast food chains popular and widespread, Pal's has continued to use the owner-operator system, as explained in an episode of "Cold Call," a podcast by Harvard Business School. While the operator does not actually own the restaurant, they are empowered as such. The numbers don't lie, and Professor Gary Pisano remarks, "A Pal's owner-operator makes between two point five and ten times the industry average for a QSR [Quick Service Restaurant] store manager."

Pal's Sudden Service was the first restaurant to win the prestigious Baldrige National Quality Award

Since 1987, the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (MBNQA), named after former Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige, is the highest presidential honor in the U.S. for performance excellence. There are currently six categories: manufacturing, service company, small business, education, healthcare, and non-profit. The criteria considered are leadership both within the organization and community, strategy, relationships with customers, data measurement and analysis, use of the organization's workforce, operations, and overall results.

In 2001, Pal's Sudden Service became the very first restaurant to be awarded the MBNQA for a small business (via National Institute of Standards and Technology). The establishment's business excellence process was the key to its win. Every decision the company makes is considered through the lens of customer service, but not at the expense of its employees. At the time of the MBNQA win, Pal's had an employee turnover rate of 127%, considerably lower than the industry average of 200%.

Pal's launched the McClaskey Excellence Institute

In the 1990s, businesses started to take note of Pal's Sudden Service's success. Rather than keep a tight lip, Pal's CEO Thom Crosby decided to offer "benchmarking sessions" with other local businessmen who wanted to learn Pal's secrets (via Reuters). There was so much interest that people had to be turned away at the very first session.

In 1999, Crosby met David McClaskey, an Eastman Chemical Co. quality expert at the time. A year later, the pair came together to launch Pal's Business Excellence Institute, now called the McClaskey Excellence Institute. McClaskey was serving as Pal's MBNQA consultant when the business won the award in 2001, so he clearly knew a thing or two about excellence.

Pal's Business Excellence Institute became independent from Pal's Sudden Service at the beginning of 2020, hence its name change. It continues to offer classes based on proven business techniques that have been refined over decades. In addition to courses, the Institute offers consultation, coaching, webinars, and other resources.

You order from a person, not a speaker

One of several elements that set Pal's Sudden Service apart from competitors is that you order from an actual person face-to-face when you pull through the drive-thru. There is no crackling garbled speaker here.

Perhaps this is why Pal's makes so few errors in customer orders. In fact, Pal's is 10 times better at order accuracy than the average quick-service restaurant, according to a case study by Bill Taylor, the co-founder of Fast Company. One of the instructors at McClaskey Excellence Institute, David Jones, has said, "It is not acceptable to us that a customer gets his or her order wrong — ever. There is a huge difference between doing it right most of the time and all of the time. We expect all of the time."

CEO Thom Crosby explained to QSR that the chain does not operate as a tech-forward business. Customer service is as personal as it gets, but the technology gears are still running in the background at par with the rest of the industry. 

Pal's employees are very well trained

You don't become the first restaurant in the nation to win an MBNQA by being a slouch. CEO Thom Crosby compared its employees' performance with professional athletes, noting that in both cases it comes down to dedicated training (via Harvard Business Review). For Pal's Sudden Service, this begins at the hiring level. Applicants go through a screening process to weed out people who the company doesn't think will do well in its unique environment. New hires are then trained for 120 hours using a system of certifications for the various restaurant stations. Only then are they allowed to operate on their own.

But it doesn't end there. Employees are given random pop quizzes that, if passed, will recertify them to continue working on those stations. If the employee fails the quiz, they will be retrained until they can pass the test. David McClaskey said of the system, "Pal's has a standard. They're going to train 100 percent of their people to do the job 100 percent right, 100 percent of the time."

Pal's unique building designs really make it stand out

It is incredibly difficult not to notice a brilliant blue building adorned with a giant burger, hot dog, french fries, and drink (complete with straw). Not to mention the extra large red letters that spell out Pal's along the side. If you weren't sure where you were just based on the architecture, the brightly colored name quickly confirms any doubts. 

The quirky building design was created by a wife and husband artist duo, Karen and Tony Barone (via WJHL). The couple's sculptures typically include bright colors and a dash of whimsy. Tony sketched the now iconic design for Pal's drive-thru locations on a cocktail napkin. When he showed it to Pal, the restaurant owner was immediately satisfied and it has since been the standard for the various outposts. Assistant professor of communication at Milligan University Art Brown commented that thanks to its wildly original architectural design and advertising, "Pal's has become part of the visual landscape of our region."

Pal's is four times faster than its next fastest competitor

Quick-service restaurants are all about getting the customer's order to them fast and accurately. With Pal's Sudden Service, this credo is literally in the name and the dedication is genuine. According to a case study by Bill Taylor, a Pal's customer spends an average of 18 seconds at the first window where they place their order, then an additional 12 seconds at the second window to pick up their food. The second fastest quick-service restaurant in the business takes over a minute per window. To top it off, Pal's order accuracy is uncanny with a mistake made on average only once per 3600 meals ordered.

Pal's employees are highly trained and turnover is incredibly low (via Harvard Business Review). Consequently, customers can feel confident that their orders are accurate and prepared by people who know what they're doing and care about delivering the best service possible. There's no need to double-check your order before you drive away from Pal's.

You can order breakfast and lunch, but not at the same time

Pal's Sudden Service may be famous for its Big Pals, Sauceburgers, and Frenchie Fries, but it is also known for its equally popular cheddar rounds. However, the burgers and cheddar rounds will never meet because they are part of the lunch and breakfast menus, respectively. 

In a departure from other fast food restaurants, Pal's does not include eggs on its breakfast menu. Instead, you'll find five different kinds of biscuits: plain butter, gravy, or meat (sausage, bacon, or country ham). Cheddar rounds (like a cheesy hashbrown) and a cup of coffee finish off the simple menu. If you want to grab a Pal's breakfast, you will need to arrive before 10:30 a.m. (or 11 a.m. on Sundays) when the kitchen switches over to the lunch menu. Offering all-day breakfast would require more equipment and employees, which might compromise the famous fast service.

Get the Cheddar Rounds with extra heat

Pal's renowned cheddar rounds are small circular hashbrowns with genuine cheddar cheese inside. They're so popular that one customer started a petition to persuade the establishment to serve them all day. In the meantime, you'll have to make do with ordering them for breakfast.

A common tip for assured crispiness is to order them with extra heat. The rounds are already crispy on the outside with a gooey cheese center, but the extra heat means they are cooked a bit longer to make them even crunchier. We are all familiar with mushy french fries, and hashbrowns run the same risk. To avoid the chance of getting a less-than-crisp cheddar round, be sure to ask for them with extra heat. Incidentally, the same advice holds true for Pal's Frenchie fries and other potato products, whether ordering from a restaurant or cooking them yourself at home.

Order from the secret menu

Many restaurants, especially of the fast-food variety, have a secret menu of items you can order even though they aren't in the advertised selection. Pal's Sudden Service is such a place, even going so far as to acknowledge the menu's existence.

At certain Pal's locations, customers can order a peanut butter shake or a peanut butter chocolate shake. Peach and raspberry flavoring can also be added to any beverage. peachy Mello Yellos and peachy Sprites seem particularly popular.

As for sandwiches, you can order a dressed hot dog (lettuce, tomato, and pickle), a lemon pepper Big Chicken with or without cheese, a Big Pal with cheese and/or sauce, a double Sauceburger with or without cheese, and a toasted cheese with bacon with or without the cheese to make a BLT. Cheese, tomato, and condiments can also be added to the breakfast sandwiches. Basically, if the items are on the menu, you can mix and match them.

Pal's is in no hurry to expand

As of 2022, there are 30 Pal's Sudden Service locations, all within eastern Tennessee and western Virginia. In an interview with WHJL news station, founder Fred "Pal" Barger Jr. was asked why he didn't grow his business into a national or even international chain. He answered simply, "I don't know. I'm pretty happy." Hinting at the company ethos, he added, "We just do it ourselves. We kind of stay small. We live a good life."

Since Barger passed away in 2020, Pal's has continued the tradition of its slow and well-thought-out expansion. In 2021, WATE News reported on a press conference during which Pal's COO was asked about expanding into Knoxville, Tennessee. "We're always looking to expand," he said, further explaining,  "[...] we only believe in building a restaurant where we have the leady fully trained and ready. So that kind of determines where and how we expand, but definitely in the future I think Knoxville would be a good market for us."

Fred Pal Barger Jr. has left a legacy of bettering communities through his restaurants

Pal's Sudden Service's founder believed in giving back to his community. In 2015, Barger donated money to his old high school Dobyns-Bennett to build a new athletic field house and jumbotron scoreboard, according to Johnson City Press. He made another donation to Northeast State Community College for a new automotive training center that was later named after him and helped build a carousel in downtown Kingsport — all with an eye on bettering his hometown.

Barger was awarded the Kingsport Times-News Award for Distinguished Community Service, inducted into the Tennessee Restaurant Association's Hall of Fame, and received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Philanthropy. Barger made the same commitment to the other communities in which his restaurants operate. Upon being awarded the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award by former President George W. Bush in 2021, QSR reports that Barger said, "It's nice to have that recognition, but we didn't do it for all that for that. We did it because it's the right thing to do."