America’s first restaurateur to earn the nation’s highest honor for quality, the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, died Oct. 29 at the age of 90. Barger worked in the restaurant industry for more than 70 years as the owner and operator of Pal’s Sudden Service, as well as Olde West Dinner Theater, Skoby’s Restaurant and Sharon’s BBQ.
In 1956, Barger opened the first Pal’s location in downtown Kingsport. His focus on serving quality food quickly would be the cornerstone of a regional burger chain empire in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. The Pal’s chain has grown to 30 locations.
His passion for excellence led to Pal’s Sudden Service earning the honor of being the first restaurant operation to earn the prestigious Baldrige National Quality Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce in 2001, and two Excellence Awards from Tennessee’s Center for Performance Excellence, in 2001 and 2006.
“Pal’s focus on delighting his customers led or organization to a Performance Excellence Model that is being followed by major corporations and not-for-profit organizations around the world,” says Pal’s CEO Thom Crosby. “His model for training and empowering his employees to have confidence in themselves created four generations of productive citizens across the country.” Today, Pal’s Sudden Service employs more than 1,300 in the region.
Barger also created a clear path for the future of his brand prior to his death. “Our organization will never lose its focus on excellence and customer delight,” says Crosby. “We intend to continue our growth and our leadership for many generations ahead.”
A graduate of Kingsport’s Dobyns-Bennett high school and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Barger graduated from East Tennessee State University with a degree in business in 1955.
Barger was a member of the East Tennessee State University Foundation and the Roan Scholars Leadership Program Committee. For his contributions he was named the university’s Alumnus of the Year in 2001 and Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. He also purchased an abandoned downtown building in Kingsport to house Northeast State Community College’s Pal Barger Regional Center for Automotive Programs. In July of 2019, Barger was awarded the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Philanthropy from the Tennessee Board of Regents.
Barger received the Kingsport Times-News Award for Distinguished Community Service for his efforts in helping make Kingsport’s Meadowview Conference Resort & Convention Center a reality. He served on several boards across the region and was inducted into the Tennessee Restaurant Association’s Hall of Fame.
Barger and wife, Sharon, who is now deceased, financed the refurbishing of an antique carousel for the enjoyment of families at the Kingsport’s Farmer’s Market.
Former Kingsport Mayor and friend, Dennis Phillips, had this to say of Barger. “Pal’s wit and ability to focus on the important things in life was a real asset to Kingsport and the region. His legacy will live on for many decades ahead. We will miss him.”