PONTOTOC Four years ago, Paul and Bonnie Finney decided that after 20 years in the restaurant business and a decade as proprietors of Finney's Sandwich and Soda Shop in Tupelo, it was time to take it easy. So, they sold the business to long-time employee David Burgett and retired. But it wasn't long before they discovered they were just not the retiring type.
So, in February 1993, the Finneys, residents of the Palmetto community in Lee County, opened a new restaurant in Pontotoc and named it simply, "Paul and Bonnie's."
The sandwich shop was an immediate hit with Pontotoc folks who voted the establishment as the "Best Overall Restaurant" in town last year. And its mutual admiration as far as the Finneys are concerned.
"We love Pontotoc," said Bonnie Finney.
In fact, she said, the restaurant's central decoration is a tribute to Pontotoc's original Indian name, the "Land of the Hanging Grapes." An entire wall of the dining room is covered with an artistic arrangement of grapevine wreaths complemented by brass vases filled with silk eucalyptus stems.
Neat gray and black tables cover the center of the dining room's gray tile floors while padded booths in maroon and gray line the white walls. The overall effect is airy, clean and friendly.
Bonnie Finney said the restaurant's maroon and gray motif was not sports related. "These are just my favorite colors," she said. "I have these same colors in my house."
But the most important part of the restaurant is its immaculate kitchen where Paul Finney, Bonnie Finney and their son, Kirk Finney, preside over a small staff and turn out some of the tastiest sandwiches and side dishes around.
The restaurant is a fast-food establishment only in the sense that you get your food in a hurry. Each order is prepared individually, fresh from the kitchen.
"We specialize in what was years ago called a short-order business," Paul Finney once said.
Paul Finney got his start in the food business in 1956 when he began making sandwiches at TKE Drugstore in Tupelo. His reputation as the fastest short-order cook around prompted him to open his own business in Tupelo with his wife in 1981. That business has continued to be popular under Burgett's ownership while Paul and Bonnie Finney operate the restaurant in Pontotoc.
As with their earlier Tupelo business, potato salad is a popular item on Paul and Bonnie's restaurant menu. Once a customer stopped by to pick up some of the potato salad to take with them on an airplane flight, they said.
The Finneys don't divulge their potato salad recipe outside the business and the family, guarding it so closely they've never even written it down.
"People will come in and say, 'I've tried and tried to make potato salad like yours, but it never comes out quite the same,'" Paul Finney said with a smile.
The secret of their best-selling sandwiches is simple, though, Bonnie Finney said.
"Most businesses today are not run like ours," she said. "We do a lot of the work ourselves and we're not assembly line production. We start with quality foods, better lines of meat. I think that makes a difference to customers."
Top sandwich sellers are sliced chicken and roast beef. Also popular is the combination plate with tuna, chicken and potato salad served on a bed of lettuce with sliced tomato, potato chips, sliced hard-boiled egg and pickles as well as daily specials.
The restaurant has also been voted by Pontotoc County residents as the place to get the best desserts. Those desserts are luscious homemade pies made by Bonnie Finney. They include old-fashioned coconut, lemon, chocolate and strawberry pies as well as seasonal selections such as sweet potato pie, apple pie and pecan pie.
In the good old summertime, customers begin clamoring for the restaurant's "Orange Fruit Freeze," a cooling drink made with orange sherbet and freshly-squeezed orange juice.
"We serve a wide cross-section of customers," Bonnie Finney said. "We try to offer a menu and the kind of food that appeals to everybody."
The food certainly appeals to regular patron Phil Jones, vice-president of operations at Brookwood Furniture Company in Pontotoc. Jones said his personal favorite meal is the fried catfish fingers, and added that many of Brookwood's out-of-town suppliers insist on eating at the restaurant for business lunches.
"We have fabric suppliers from North Carolina, New York and other places that think they can't leave town without having lunch at Paul and Bonnie's," Jones said with a laugh. "And, if you haven't tried one of their milkshakes, you don't know what you're missing."