A few weeks ago, I documented the rise and fall of Central Park, the beloved burger stand that once dominated the local and regional fast food industry. At the time, I wrote there were only three remaining. I can admit that I severely underestimated the enormity of the love locals have for Central Park. I sifted through almost 800 Facebook comments of people showering the franchise with admiration, compliments and memories. It was also a call to arms for Chattanoogans to appreciate their hometown burger joint before it was replaced by the likes of a Whataburger.
One of those old-timey fans of Central Park -- who I didn't hear from until I wrote that column -- is Calvin Ball, who grew up eating at Central Park in Chattanooga, sometimes twice a week. He now owns the last three stands. He's a developer and general contractor without any food and beverage experience who decided to bet on himself and the burger stand.
"It sounds cheesy, but I just wanted to give this a shot, and I wasn't afraid to fail," he said. "If I did fail, I'd be okay living with that failure. I just wanted to take that chance."
Ball and his wife, Amy, purchased the 23rd Street location on Feb. 1, 2020, and immediately gave it the massive facelift it desperately needed. He wouldn't give me the exact price tag but assured me that it was under $100,000. You'd think it would have been asinine to partake in any such endeavor during the height of a global pandemic. Whereas sit-down restaurants struggled mightily and eventually faltered en masse, Central Park was spared by the fact their business model relied solely on its double drive-through.
"When COVID hit, we actually almost tripled sales out of that one store," he said.
The success of the 23rd Street location piqued Ball's interest enough for him to inquire about owning the entire chain, which had seven locations at the time. After a series of back-and-forth conversations and negotiations, Ball acquired Central Park in its totality on Jan. 1, 2022.
"We went and met with each store's owner, individually, and told them that our intentions and goal were to really take back the Central Park name and really bring it back to its roots of really good hamburger and fries," he said. "What happened was, the previous owners in Florida were receiving royalty fees from each restaurant but they never visited the restaurants, so all the restaurants were selling completely different hamburgers, hot dogs and fries."Once in charge, Ball gave the owners of all seven locations an ultimatum: "If you want to stay on board with Central Park, you're going to have to start selling the same food (as the 23rd Street location), you're going to have to update your building to the same paint scheme, you're going to have to really operate like a real franchise."
When the dust settled, four locations chose to part ways with the Central Park franchise and rebrand their burger stands. Ball and his wife own and operate the locations in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, and 23rd Street, while the location at 5119 Hixson Pike is a full-fledged franchise.
Even with the trio of restaurants who pledged their allegiance to the Central Park flag, there was skepticism, especially from Richie Clayton. A 40-year veteran of Central Park, Clayton started working there when he was 16. He highly doubted if a man who's never flipped a burger professionally was up for the task.
"Richie knows everything about everything about Central Park. I basically told him that if he wasn't willing to stay with this store (23rd Street location), I wasn't going to purchase it," Ball said. "He was extremely skeptical at first, but he eased up when he realized I was just here trying to make this thing work."
Ball promoted Clayton to regional manager, let him create a signature burger called "The Big Rich" and graciously credits him with the bulk of Central Park's success.
"He really oversees the day-to-day operation and really makes everything go," Ball said. "I'm more a kind of behind-the-scenes guy, paying the bill and that sort of thing. I get involved when he needs me, but he does not need me very often. I can do things behind the scenes that he doesn't like doing, and he can do things on the front lines that I'm not good at."
Clayton also helped Ball and his team with a complete overhaul, drastically improving the quality of everything, from the mustard to the buns and french fries to the all-important hamburger patties. He was well aware that doing so would mean the prices would bump up, but he wasn't willing to sacrifice quality for volume.
"We would really rather serve better food to fewer people instead of selling a ton of hamburgers and hotdogs that are of lesser quality," Ball said.
What's next? Ball's mind is set on expansion, with new locations built from the ground up and modeled after the flagship stand on 23rd Street, which is slightly larger than the 12-by-12-foot boxes from before. He's been scouting land for the past three or four months, with interest in cities like South Pittsburg, East Ridge and Red Bank in Tennessee, and Dalton, Georgia. Most importantly, he wants to start on this expansion within a year with aspirations of having 11 locations in the next decade.
I believe that at least every other decent Chattanoogan is rooting for Central Park's resurgence, maybe even more than they're rooting for the Lookouts or Red Wolves. I'm thankful that Calvin Ball, Richie Clayton and the rest of the team are dedicated to salvaging Central Park from the ashes of mediocrity like a phoenix. There won't be any candlelight vigils on 23rd Street in memoriam of the Big Bubba burger, but instead jubliant ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
And last but not least, there will be milkshakes, back by popular demand.