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McKinney’sPond is back, baby!

Fewer eateries in Emanuel have more history and a stronger reputation than a little place called McKinney’s Pond. Quietly nestled just off Highway 56 North toward Midville sits a piece of property that’s been in the Kennedy family for eons. On that plot is a sizable pond, a restaurant of epic proportions, the remnants of a used-to-be popping vacation spot from years ago (if you know where to look), and, most of all, a whole lot of family.

Tricia Kennedy Conner runs the place today following the passing of her late father, Mutt Kennedy. She says her earliest memory is perhaps the best indicator of what McKinney’s is all about. “As far back as I can think, I can remember going to stay with my Mamaw’s. My uncle, Perry Kennedy, would come to town in Midville and get us, me and my siblings or me and my friends, in his pick-up. We’d come here and swim all day long at the pool. When we were done, we’d get a cup of French fries for the ride back. We’d ride in the back of his pick-up back to Mamaw’s. I’ve been coming here my whole life.”

Still, the McKinney’s Pond story goes back further than that. Tim Heath, Tricia’s brother, said in an interview last Thursday the story really starts back in the 1940s when their Uncle Perry (previously mentioned) and Uncle Jay Kennedy farmed the land for cotton and other crops. There was a pond on the land at the time, complete with two grist mills, one of which was burned down by Sherman on his March to the Sea. During their time farming, the two brothers started creating the venue locals and out-of-towners alike started frequenting and love even today. Eventually, Jay and Perry sold the farming land to Union Bag and Paper circa 1952. At that time, Jay and Perry immediately jumped into the entertainment aspect. The restaurant, according to Heath, was already there at the time; they simply added to it. Over the years, Perry and Jay built a skating rink, the pool Tricia mentioned, a bowling alley, rental cabins, and the restaurant, of course.

The grandeur of McKinney’s developed from there. In its heyday, the place welcomed vacationers from afar and became the go-to spot for locals to get food and participate in activities. Mutt took over in the 1970s, and his outgoing, go-getter, welcoming approach to entrepreneurship made its success multiply tenfold. Under his leadership, McKinney’s became the Beach Music Capitol of the World. The late longtime business owner networked to get headliner stars like George Strait, Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Lee, The Tams, The Drifters, George Jones, Lee Greenwood, The Swingin’ Medallions and others to Midville. Those big names, along with the homey feel of McKinney’s, created the perfect atmosphere for dances. Combine that great music with excellent seafood and steaks and familiar faces and you’ve got a winning recipe. During both of those eras, McKinney’s ran by the uncles and McKinney’s ran by Mutt, the restaurant was at-capacity, standing room-only, every time the doors were opened.

Unfortunately, the demographics of the area shifted eventually. McKinney’s has always been a staple here, but as children grew up and moved off, the crowds decreased in size. The restaurant’s reputation and Mutt’s steadfastness kept the place afloat, even when his health started to decline a few years ago.

“Daddy just loved this place. There was no happier place for him than being on that stool, greeting people as they walked in. From the minute customers came through that door, they were family, whether he knew you or not,” Tricia said. “When his health started going downhill, he and I talked about me taking over. That was about five years ago, but he couldn’t let go. He literally lived for this place.”

Mutt did his best up until the very end. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, McKinney’s closed its doors. Another nine months would pass before the “Open” sign was flipped around again. Tricia said she was heartbroken, and understandably so, to see the family business boarded up, even temporarily. In addition to the sentimental memories tied to McKinney’s, she spent her entire career in food service, so the connection was two-fold. She assumed ownership of the establishment in August 2020 right after his passing and has been full-speed ahead ever since.

Tricia and her family immediately began renovating the property as needed, starting with the lobby. They gutted the kitchen and redid it completely. They also had a bar crafted from wood from one of the mills, and that bar is where customers now order food in the lobby. Of course, there are more renovations coming down the pipes as well—but that’s in the future, not the here and now.

The rest of the McKinney’s operation, Tricia said, was left alone because, after all, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. She kept the menu the same; the same homemade seafood, steaks, burgers, French fries, croutons, soups, appetizers, tartar sauce, pot bread, fried chicken, and more that customers have been accustomed to being served there over the years haven’t changed even slightly under Tricia’s leadership.

Most of all, she has ensured the “family tradition” of McKinney’s has remained untouched. That, she says, is the biggest reason her family’s business has survived and thrived for so long. From the kitchen staff—all of whom returned to work for her after Mutt’s passing—to the front staff to the wait staff to the Sunday night regulars to the new faces who come to dine there, everyone comes to McKinney’s gets the same loving treatment.

Needless to say, the reopening of McKinney’s came as a welcomed occasion by the public. Tricia, her brothers, Bucky and Tim, pulled together for an event for the ages. Their grand re-opening on December 3, 2020 was well-attended and featured various giveaways like shrimp dinners, a ribeye loin, and a gift certificate. Bucky, who is also a preacher, was on hand to sign his new devotional book.

“Our grand reopening, it was awesome! So many people turned out to support us. It went off without a hitch, and that’s to the credit of our hard-working staff,” Tricia said. “Our busiest weekend, though, was the second weekend we reopened, the weekend after the reopening. I think everyone expected us to be busy for our grand reopening so they held off a week because the next weekend, we were slammed!”