Say, what is that elephant doing down at Ollie’s Place?
Friday, May 27, 2011
Ollie Page and his girlfriend, Janie Russell, are shown at the restaurant in Celina. (Photo by Nicole W. Little)
What do you get when you combine Marilyn Monroe and elephants?
Ollie’s Place, of course.
“All I had was $354,” said Ollie Page about how he opened this quaint restaurant in Celina, just a few minutes’ drive from Dale Hollow Lake in Clay County. “I just started turning it back into a business.”
Page was born in Celina in 1954. As a young boy, he helped out his dad who cooked at a restaurant which is just down the street from where he now operates his own business. But back then, as an African-American, Page said he “was not allowed out front.”
Those were tough lessons to learn for a young boy, but they are lessons he remembers well.
Page eventually left Celina and lived in Indianapolis for 20 years where some family members owned a dry cleaning business. He made his way back to Tennessee, working in Cookeville but wanting to go back home to Celina.
It was two years ago when Page took his $354 and had a conversation with someone who had a restaurant that was sitting idle in Celina. That person made him a good enough offer that Page could get started in opening his own place. He wasn’t sure what would happen, but after just a year, the building had to be doubled in size because of all the business it was attracting.
Page went into business with his girlfriend, Janie Russell, and they both operate the restaurant. Page said he does the bulk of the cooking and she “does the mixing. We have to work together.”
Ollie’s Place offers a wide variety of food, including breakfast. They also feature specials on a daily basis and have weekend specials, as well. All of it is homemade. One of his main specialties is frog legs, which are very popular. You can also get alligator, if you choose.
“You can’t find a seat in here on Friday and Saturday nights,” said Page.
Catering is another part of the business which has expanded in the past two years. They cater everything from weddings to birthday parties. If you want, they can fix you up with a whole hog and all the trimmings. Another aspect of the business is barbecue, which gets going right around Memorial Day. They have ribs and shoulders on a regular basis.
What’s in the trunk?
When you drive up to Ollie’s Place, which is located at 710 E. Lake Avenue, it is impossible not to notice a rather large elephant in front of the building.
“One of my customers came in one day and said I needed an elephant,” said Page.
Not sure what to think, Page said the customer came back the next day and, sure enough, had a very large elephant statue in the back of his truck. He left it there for four days, says Page, and then took it back.
“We had customers almost in tears wanting to know where the elephant went,” said Page.
Page immediately went to the man and began negotiating terms for what he calls a “novelty” item. The terms were simple: $1,500. But as Page says, this customer came to the restaurant everyday so they worked out a deal and the elephant is now part of the lore at Ollie’s.
Then came another idea.
“We have got to have a gimmick,” Page told his girlfriend and staff.
That gimmick became the one-pound “elephant burger,” which is now a permanent part of the menu.
In fact, Page now has a food challenge to any takers. Anyone who can eat three elephant burgers in an hour wins $50. They also get their photo taken and placed on the bulletin board.
Many have tried, said Page, but nobody has done the deed as of yet. He’s also got another deal in which persons can eat two of his special two-pound burgers in an hour and get the same reward. He said one person ate the first two-pounder in 12 minutes but only made it about a fourth of the way through the second.
There are many photos on the bulletin board, but only of those who have tried and failed. Page has contacted Adam Richman, star of Man vs. Food on The Food Network, and was told his place is on the list. Time will tell on that one.
Another unmistakable aspect of Ollie’s Place are photos and posters of screen legend Marilyn Monroe.
Like the elephant, it was just one of those things which happened. Page found an old poster of Monroe in the trash and one of his customers suggested he hang it on the wall. Page obliged and from there, it has just taken off.
“All of my customers have brought these in,” said Page, looking around where Marilyn Monroe is on nearly every wall. “I have not paid for one of them.”
He said the concept has become a “conversation piece” for the restaurant. He also features many Coca-Cola items on display and has plans to put in a model train set to run around the top of the restaurant.
All of these things lead to the well-known atmosphere at Ollie’s Place, which is already getting a reputation for great food. Page said two guys from Franklin recently heard about the elephant burgers and made the drive just for lunch.
Yet how has all of this been possible for a man who had just $354 in the height of a recession?
“We put in a lot of hours,” said Page. “In the beginning, we worked seven days a week.”
Even now, he says he enjoys washing dishes because he can sit down and take a load off of his tired feet.
Page also said having great customer service is key in a successful restaurant.
“It’s part of the atmosphere,” he said. “I like to cut up with them a lot.”
Page says he tries to talk to every customer who comes in the door. He also keeps his prices reasonable and serves good portions.
“I am not trying to get rich,” says Page. “I just want to be able to pay my bills.”
He also said doing “anything it takes” in the restaurant is important, including washing those dishes. The only thing he doesn’t do is take orders because his handwriting isn’t that great.
“They don’t like me to take orders,” laughed Page.
Time and dedication
Page said having Dale Hollow Lake nearby is a big boost to his business during the warm months, but added that people from the surrounding areas have been very supportive.
Those customers, from Cookeville to Lafayette to southern Kentucky, have helped him stay in business. He said they frequent his restaurant on a regular basis.
“We survive through the winter with their help,” said Page.
So what advice would Page give someone who is going into business?
“Make sure they have got a lot of time and dedication,” said Page. “I’m from the old school of hard work.”
Page said a restaurant does not leave “much family time,” and he tells his children that if “they want nice things, you have to sacrifice. You have to have determination.”
From $354 to a thriving restaurant in an economically distressed county during a recession, Page certainly knows what he is talking about.You can contact Ollie’s Place at 931-243-6363.