A changing of the guard at an iconic OBX spot

By on August 25, 2020

The original building being built around 1955 pre John's Drive In.
1960's Pre John's Drive In
Around 1970 John and Pat in front of the building with the light up cone.
Painting by Marcia Cline of the John's Drive In building from the 90's
Present day John's Drive In 2020
John's Drive In all lite up at night. Long ago the ships off shore would use our lite up store as a beacon to know where they were, the brightest spot in Kitty Hawk.
Foreign exchange students gathered to celebrate their first summer at the obx and the Famous John's Drive In.
Kitty Hawk Methodist church kids who have been coming for 15 years after they clean up the beaches for the community
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John’s Drive In gets new owners, keeps its old charm

After more than four decades of offering popular lunch “boats” and milkshakes to generations of locals and visitors, John Tice has officially retired as owner of the iconic John’s Drive In, an authentic and windswept family-run lunch spot at MP 4.5 on the beach road in Kitty Hawk.

But Tice, who says his family has put their “heart and soul” into John’s Drive In over the years, asserts that with the new owners – Outer Banks natives Jason and Chelsea Jordan – his family’s legacy, along with its famous menu items and beachy atmosphere, will continue on.

“They are going to keep John’s the same, but they are going to have their own flair…and they are going to keep it going for future generations,” Tice said of the Chelsea and Jason, a well-known and highly regarded chef on the Outer Banks who had been with Black Pelican for years. “I had other offers, to do other things with the property, but it’s not what my father or my mother would want,” Tice added. “We put our hearts and souls into that place.”

“We are excited to be part of something that is so iconic and such a tradition for so many families, ours included,” Chelsea Jordan said. “We’re thrilled to carry on the legacy and tradition.”

Tice’s father, John M. Tice, Sr. and his wife, Pat, sold their home in Pittsburgh, PA and moved to the Outer Banks in 1977 with their three teenage children – John, Mona and Tina. The restaurant quickly became a local favorite for the fresh tuna and fried dolphin cooked up by “Big John,” served up with Pat’s homemade tartar and cocktail sauces.

John, Sr. passed away in 2007 and Pat has long since retired, but John continued to own and operate the business through the years after working alongside his father. His daughter, Amanda, chipped in to help, along with his sisters.

Tice said a big moment in his career was when his father retired nearly 20 years ago. “We worked side by side, other than when I was in the military and overseas, so that was kind of a big moment for me.”

Tice acknowledged that there will be plenty he’ll miss about John’s, but put a few things at the top of the list. “The biggest moments have included all the kids and the puppies, that’s what made every day special,” he noted, adding that the drive-in’s popular puppy cups would bring in “truckloads of puppies” and the popular restaurant would often be the host of doggy birthday parties.

Big John, his son acknowledged, always said when he got his own place, he’d make sure the dogs had a treat when they visited the restaurant. “That’s how [the puppy cups] all started. He wanted to be sure the puppies were taken care of.”

Tice said he would also miss the regular families who return for generations and the children who have their pictures taken and added to the drive-in’s picture board each year so they “can watch themselves grow.”

He speaks fondly of one regular who comes every morning at 11 a.m. to get milkshakes for all the kids, grandkids and great grandkids. “They come every morning with their own little cooler, they’re like professionals – those are the things you’ll miss. We have a big family in town now and they have been coming for thirty-five years – so as their family grows, their orders grow, too. It’s always fun because they go from five or six dolphin sandwiches to like thirty.”

At John’s, it’s a rare sight to not see a line at the drive-in’s window during the summer time lunch rush, with guests ordering dolphin boats or John’s famous milkshake combinations of chocolate peanut butter, chocolate, peanut butter banana and French vanilla.

While new owner Chelsea Jordan said Jason may add his own touch some items to the menu, she explained that as the new owners, they plan to “keep it as true to and what customers of John’s expects. We have no plans to take away from what everyone loves about John’s. We are so excited to be a part of something so many hold dear to their vacations and everyday lives.”

Being in the restaurant these past few weeks, she said, “is a constant reminder of how special this establishment is for so many people. I always knew that, this is just a new reminder.”

As for Tice, he plans to spend time in his retirement continuing the charity work he has been involved in over the years, including Mercy Chefs, the Wounded Warrior Project and the American Legion Riders.

He’s spent the last week or so showing the Jordans some of his secrets about how things are made, and some of the tricks of the trade he’s employed over the years. But even though he’ll miss the hectic pace, Tice is confident he’s leaving the business in good hands. “[Jason] wanted his own place, and they’ve been here since they were little kids. I liked the idea of having another local family take over for a local family.”

“You see places on the Outer Banks, if you’ve lived here as long as I have, change hands and then it becomes seven different places in five years,” Tice noted. “My dad didn’t buy this place, and we didn’t put all this effort into it, to watch it be torn down and have some McMansion be put in there. It’d be an eyesore to the community. We have a really nice piece of property that is unique there, it’s still wild.”

The practice of buying up of property and bulldozing, he added, “It’s not the Outer Banks, and not how we were raised here.”


  • Mae

    Wow! I’m happy for John but sad for us. I hope they don’t change a thing…..it’s perfect just the way it is. Happy Retirement.

    Friday, Jul 17 @ 9:20 am
  • tim

    I can’t wait to go say hi to my new neighbor. Chelsea and I have been good friends for several years and I am just 100 ft away. Welcome to the neighborhood.

    Friday, Jul 17 @ 9:45 am
  • WindyBill

    Best Possible Wishes for the Most Honorable Tice Family and the Jordan Family! The past will be long remembered and the future will be Welcomed.

    Friday, Jul 17 @ 11:20 am
  • outis

    What a nice story! Although sad that John is retiring, it is a story with a happy ending.
    Thank you John Tice, for your words, and your actions, and your long history on the Outer Banks! The story put a smile on my face, and a tear or two in my eyes. I wish everyone here thought as you do. Enjoy your retirement!

    Friday, Jul 17 @ 12:53 pm
  • Jon Redden

    Good luck guys, we own behind you and love it being there!

    Friday, Jul 17 @ 4:44 pm
  • Sue Ward

    We are one of the families that keep coming, year after year. I’m so glad you have put this in local hands – the memories are sure to keep on coming! Although we will miss John and family, we’re happy that you’ve taken over, Chelsea and Jason!

    Friday, Jul 17 @ 7:44 pm
  • Jim M

    My grandfather had a cottage just north of Kitty Hawk Rd..across the road from the old Kitty Hawk life saving station..We spent many summers there (1950-1968 0r 69) and we would walk the “yellow line” in the middle of the road..(it was cooler than the sand or black top) down to Brittons store at about MP5 ..and always stopped at Johns on the way back for some refreshment..”AAH..those were the days” Best wishes for all…Jim

    Friday, Jul 17 @ 8:02 pm
  • The Sosa’s

    People think we’re nuts when we tell them that we drive 6 hours for a sandwich – but that is some sandwich!! Our kids have grown up knowing that we’ll build the rest of our OBX vacations around our lunches at John’s. I’m so thankful for all of the great memories and happy to hear that the old favorites will stick around. Please don’t change that fried dolphin sandwich!!
    Best of luck!

    Saturday, Jul 18 @ 2:55 am
  • Betty B

    Johns is a OBX. Icon , you could really tell they love everyone who came . The flavor of the food was and will be a one of s kind OBX experience
    Is memories will fill our hearts forever and the laughs and memories too. Congratulations on your retirement John and congratulations to the new owners . OBX family memories will be building on the the legacy.

    Saturday, Jul 18 @ 8:58 pm
  • Sue E Smith

    My Mother used to manage the ice cream business before it was John’s drive-in. It was called the Dairy Malt. She used to make home-made banana ice cream in the soft serve machine. I started waiting on customers when I was 14 years old. Before I was 14 I washed the milk shake jackets in the kitchen and helped scrub the floors and everything before we opened for the summer. All my brothers and my sister had to help Mom run the business. I remember walking down highway 12 at 1am in the morning with the cash box in my hand. There was not a car on the road. How times have changed!

    Sunday, Jul 19 @ 8:37 am