By Richard H. Monroe | Robeson Remembers
May 31, 2014
An institution is said to be a significant practice or relationship. An icon is someone famous or admired. To many John and Ruth Ann McLellan fit those definitions perfectly.
Through their business — Johns restaurant — civic activities and devotion to others, the McLellans greatly impacted the lives of numerous residents of Lumberton, Robeson County and beyond in a positive way.
Ruth Ann was born in Durham when her father, Dr. Horace Baker, was completing his residency at Duke Hospital. Soon after, Dr. Baker and his wife, Dorothy, moved to Lumberton to begin his medical practice. Ruth Ann is the eldest of three children. Her brother, Mitch Baker, is a practicing attorney in Wilmington and her sister, Dr. Annette Baker Hines, is head of graduate nursing studies at Queens University in Charlotte.
Ruth Ann grew up in a busy and active household. Her parents were involved in the medical community, the musical community and numerous civic activities. She says that life in the Baker household was anything but boring, and there was never a lack of something to do. She attended Lumberton City Schools and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo.
While on a visit home, Ruth Ann began to “sail” through the romantic chapter in her life. A close friend, Mary Laura Sealey Dorman of Proctorville, introduced Ruth Ann to a young gentleman by the name of John Simpson McLellan, the son of Quinton and Fannie McLellan of Barnesville.
John attended public schools in Barnesville and went to Pfeiffer College on a scholarship for two years before entering the Navy. Following his tour of duty, he was employed by the Sheraton Hotel in Washington, D.C., where he began his career in the hotel and restaurant industry.
Eventually, he returned to Robeson County and worked for Allen Shaffer at South of the Border while finishing his business degree at Pembroke State University, now The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. It was during this period in his life that he met Ruth Ann.
The couple first had a double date on a sailboat at White Lake. The second date was on a sailboat but only Ruth Ann and John were there. The romance blossomed and they were married in 1970. Three children followed: Stephanie McLellan Bass, who now lives in Clayton; John McLellan, Jr., who lives in Elgin, Ill.; and Carol McLellan, who is deceased.
Upon completion of his college degree, John joined the Marriott Corporation in Atlanta, where he continued to hone his skills for four years as he gained more experience in the hotel and restaurant industry. Marriott then transferred him to New Orleans, where he stayed for more than three years.
It was on a visit home for Christmas in 1977 that a dream began to form. To escape Santa’s toys and noisy children, John and his father-in-law decided to drive around Lumberton. The more they talked, the more that John began to see opportunities for growth in the area.
While en route home to New Orleans the next day, John announced to Ruth Ann that they were going to buy a restaurant in Lumberton. When she asked which one, John replied that it was the pink brick one out on the interstate. It had been the old Blanchard Restaurant.
No time was wasted. Plans were made and after several discussions to decide on a name, Johns opened its doors on May 8, 1978.
It’s difficult to speak of Ruth Ann and John McLellan without including the restaurant in the conversation. For 28 years, the two ate, slept and dreamed Johns restaurant.
“The average person doesn’t realize the challenge of running a truly fine restaurant,” Ruth Ann said, adding that the demands of the business are endless. Some of those, she said, are: constantly finding the best sources for their food products; hiring and training servers; maintaining and updating linens, silverware and kitchen utensils; planning menus; scheduling events and advertising.
Ruth Ann says that numerous interstate travelers who dined in Johns compared it with fine-dining restaurants such as Sardi’s in New York, Antoine’s in New Orleans, Alfred’s in San Francisco and others.
Whether it was an anniversary dinner, a bridal luncheon, a business meeting, a graduation dinner or just an evening out, customer service was at the top of John and Ruth Ann’s priority list. Her outgoing personality and artistic touches made customers feel special and right at home, while John’s culinary experiences in the kitchen ensured customers of a pleasant dining experience.
John always said that he was a cook, not a chef. But many local people have debated that statement. In reference to fine-dining restaurants, he once said, “We’ll never be consistently fine, but we can be consistently good.”
John and Ruth Ann worked tirelessly to make Johns the finest that it could be. That commitment helped John win election to the board of the North Carolina Restaurant Association. He served from 1991 to 2006 and was board chairman in 2005-2006.
John and Ruth Ann, along with their assistant manager, Jerry Britt, led a staff that served the famous and the infamous for 28 years. Businessmen and politicians from the local to the national level met at Johns for either lunch or dinner.
Who can say how many political decisions regarding elections and legislation were made around those linen-draped tables? Who can say how many business deals were struck as local merchants and industry CEOs conversed over prime rib or stuffed flounder? How many men proposed marriage over dinner at Johns?
Whether it was the weary tourist, the tobacco baron, the lonely hitchhiker or the pillar of the community, all customers received the same superb service and quality food.
One of the most profitable and fun times at Johns came during the annual gathering of the tobacco buyers, now a thing of the past. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays for about 10 weeks each year, Ruth Ann says, the buyers and barons of this important component to the local and state economy conducted business in Robeson County.
Many of their dining experiences at Johns proved to be unique: Ruth Ann says that tobacco buyers would bring fresh tomatoes and ask that John slice them for their salads. The staff would put fresh lettuce on a large platter covered with the sliced tomatoes, and a bowl of mayonnaise with a spoon was placed in the middle of the platter. She says that 30 to 40 buyers opted for this treat rather than the salad menu choices.
Ruth Ann recalls another unique experience that occurred during one of these tobacco buyer gatherings: A young couple who took their small son to eat at Johns one evening mentioned that they had never been to a tobacco auction or heard the fast-talking cadence of the auction callers.
One of the tobacco buyers said that if he had something to auction he could provide a demonstration. Someone suggested that the couple’s son be “auctioned off” to diners. So he stood on top of a table and the “auction” began. Diners learned something about how tobacco auctions are conducted while being entertained.
When John began his career in the hotel industry, he enjoyed “hanging out” with the chefs. Ruth Ann says they were a humorous, creative lot who were constantly experimenting with recipes and designing attractive ways to serve their creations.
John was often invited into their homes to watch these culinary specialists hone their skills, so he began to dabble in the art of cooking and found that it provided him with pleasure and satisfaction.
He read and researched into the various areas of food preparation. Ruth Ann says she would bring him copies of recipes that she had found. Many of those recipes had an ingredient that John didn’t like or a method of preparation that he didn’t prefer, so he began adapting some recipes to his own style.Many of his recipes were his own creation.
Because John often didn’t approve of recipes that she brought him, Ruth Ann says she simply began to bring him pictures of how certain food dishes were presented. Then, she said, John would jokingly ask her why she didn’t bring the recipe along with the picture.
Ruth Ann says that John would never share any of his recipes. So after he passed, she compiled a book, “Treasured Moments at Johns.” She included memories of Johns written by patrons and 108 of John’s recipes. “They were all we could find,” she said.
She still has some of the books for sale for $12.50. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
As Johns approached its 28th year, Ruth Ann and John were discussing retirement. They wanted more time with their children and grandchildren, and health concerns were becoming an issue for both of them. John was hesitant to close the restaurant, but Ruth Ann was adamant that the time was near. She says it took two years but she finally convinced him to set a closing date.
John wanted to have one more New Year’s Eve at the restaurant. Following that final blast, the restaurant closed in January of 2007. It’s often said that all good things must come to an end, so an era of fine dining ended with the closing of Johns.
After an extended illness, John McLellan passed away in 2012. Ruth Ann continues to live in Lumberton and remains active in a number of activities. First and foremost, she helps to monitor the care of her parents, who now live in Pinehurst.
Following retirement, Ruth Ann taught piano for three years. In her typical humorous manner, she said that her students were required to be at least 6 years old or at least 55 years old.
She is an active member of Chestnut Street United Methodist Church, where she has served as a trustee and in other areas of service. She has been active with the Boys and Girls Club, Historic Robeson, the Robeson County History Museum, and Rediscover Downtown Lumberton. She continues to remain energetic, hardworking and caring in her efforts to contribute to her family and community.
Some readers might wonder what happened to the apostrophe in Johns. Just before the opening of Johns in 1978, the new restaurant sign arrived to be erected. John immediately took a disliking to the apostrophe that was to be placed between the “n” and the “s.” He decided that it would add a uniqueness to the restaurant to simply display the name as “Johns,” and so it was for 28 years. Still, many people tended to incorrectly write the name of the restaurant with an apostrophe.
Just like John and Ruth Ann McLellan, the name of the restaurant was unique and special. If you ever need an apostrophe for a sign, Ruth Ann has one that is brand new.