By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on August 25, 2020
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.”