The owners of an iconic Dunlap, Tennessee, eatery heavily damaged by fire in June have announced plans to rebuild with hopes of reopening by the end of the year.
"After lots of prayer and consideration, the Lord has led our family to the decision to rebuild," Jody and Sue Ann Lockhart posted Wednesday on the Cookie Jar Café's Facebook page. "We will reopen."
Numerous friends and Cookie Jar Café fans have reached out to the family seeking a way to help, according to the Lockharts. The restaurant was not insured.
"Instead of doing a GoFundMe page, we have chosen to sell digital gift cards," the Lockharts said in the post. "This will allow us to bring some of our employees back to work now in preparation for our new building. We hope to be reopened by the end of the year if not sooner. We will continue to keep our customers updated here as well as our website. Please continue to keep us in your prayers and plan on visiting when we reopen."
Supporters are directed to the Cookie Jar Café website to help, the owners said. On the café website, the Lockharts posted a message of appreciation, and in answer to queries from the restaurant's fans, the owners also noted the animals from the café's petting zoo were unharmed in the fire.
Cookie Jar Café Fire
In a follow-up phone interview Wednesday, Sue Ann Lockhart said the gift cards are not a fundraiser but a way to move forward and a thank you for the help.
"We're doing this to give people a chance to give us a little cash flow, and that way I'll be able to pay some of my employees now," she said. "Some of them haven't been able to find jobs, and it's going to take some of the employees to help clean the equipment to be ready to go into the new building."
In return for helping out now, folks who buy a gift card are rewarded with a little something to spend on themselves, she said. The gift card can be spent at the café.
The rebuild will include a remodel, so the restaurant will look different when its first customers return.
"It will have the same concept," she said, "but the layout will be completely different."
A photo on the restaurant's Facebook page shows part of its collection of 400-plus cookie jars — the cafe's namesake — colored deep brown from the fire.
Only 10 to 15 jars from the jars regularly on display were lost to the fire, but a collection of holiday cookie jars stored upstairs was destroyed, Lockhart said. The smokey jars look spectacular after they were cleaned, and Lockahrt has no desire to leave any of them with the wood-fired look as a reminder, she said.
Opened in 2002, the Cookie Jar Café is nestled in the rolling hills of the Sequatchie Valley on the Johnson family's farm and easily visible for miles because of the bright blue tin roof that stands out from the patchwork of farmland north of Dunlap. The Johnson's history with the farm goes back 150 years, Sue Ann Lockhart told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2017 when the café marked its 15th anniversary.
Immediately after the fire, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation launched a probe because of Jody Lockhart's links to the Sequatchie County Sheriff's Office, where he was a longtime detective, and the 12th Judicial District Attorney's Office, where he is now an investigator, but no foul play was found, according to authorities. The Lockharts were out of town when the blaze broke out, according to District Attorney Courtney Lynch. Lynch requested the TBI look into the fire over the possibility someone was seeking retaliation, she said in June.
The 12th Judicial District includes Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties.
Cookie Jar Café fans rejoiced following the Lockharts' announcement Wednesday, vowing support, future visits and promising to buy gift cards to use after the reopening. Of course, there was at least one posted GIF of a celebrating Cookie Monster from "Sesame Street" fame.
"I can't wait to go back," café fan Jason Troglin posted Wednesday under the announcement. "That was one of our favorite date night places to go have an absolutely amazing meal. We are very excited and happy to see that they are going to rebuild. I miss their food."
Another poster said it was part of a divine plan.
"Thank you," Dayton resident Jamie Dover posted Wednesday. "I have been praying and have wondered every since that Sunday if this was God's plan for an expansion. This is your chance to go bigger because the Lord knows it can't get any better."