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From big cheese to cheeseburgers

It's common practice for former university chancellors and presidents to go on to big things _ consulting firms, corporate executive suites or even politics.

But Jim Drinnon, former University of Tennessee-Chattanooga chancellor and a regular in that state's political network, has chosen a different path: hamburgers.

In a move that many would consider drastic, this 54-year-old former law partner of former Sen. Howard Baker Jr. soon will leave the Volunteer State to open a franchise of Krystal, his favorite restaurant chain, in Tarpon Springs.

"I started eating there (at Krystal) very young," says Drinnon, who served as chancellor of the university from 1973 to 1980, ran a World's Fair and then became a partner in the law firm of Baker, Worthington, Crossley, Stansberry & Woolf for 10 years.

"It's a proven product. I had eaten it all my life, and my family had, too."

Krystal burgers, which are known for their small size and square shape, are cooked with onions and steamed to keep them moist.

Drinnon, whose first store is scheduled to open in the fall on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Street and U.S. 19, says owning a franchise would be less stressful than his previous positions, which included a stint as an FBI agent in 1962-65 and as general manager of the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville.

"I didn't want (the) stress, and there was the difficulty that comes with the practice of law," said Drinnon, whose store will feature a double drive-through and outdoor seating. "I'd always thought I'd like to own my own franchise.

"It's an opportunity to see that I can build something from the ground up that will not only be profitable for me, it will create some jobs."

The former corporate lawyer is confident his past career posts will enable him to make a good living at the helm of his own business.

During the World's Fair he managed 6,000 employees as 11-million people visited, he said. Although reports in 1983 by the Associated Press indicated that excessive loan losses and eventual failure by the banker who financed much of the event may have tarnished the fair, Drinnon said it was the first world expo ever to break even.

As chancellor of the 7,500-student campus of the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, he started 35 new academic programs and helped raise $7-million in new funds for the school. Before taking the chancellorship he served as vice president for administration of the UT system and as general counsel for UT.

Drinnon says he plans to be a hands-on manager of the restaurant for the first year of operation, but former colleagues suggest he's not the type to get his hands dirty in the kitchen.

"I don't think you'll see Jim flipping any burgers," said Bob Worthington, a partner in the law firm.

But Drinnon says he's not afraid to do anything, from working the cash registers to cleaning the floors. "If we've got customers out there, I'll be doing it," he says.

The area's newest restaurateur, who plans to open at least four additional Krystal stores in the area after establishing the first, should benefit from Krystal's recent successes. The Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company's total 1992 revenues hit $232.1-million, up 10.3 percent from the $210.5-million in 1991, according to Krystal's annual report.

Krystal, founded in 1932, has 232 company-owned restaurants and 32 franchises.

The Drinnons said they chose the Tampa Bay area because they have relatives near Clearwater and enjoy the area.

"We looked at all sorts of things and decided we didn't want to be a part of the power structure any more," said wife Diane Drinnon. "I could see his stress of practicing law."

And that was good news to Krystal's executives, who have wanted to build more restaurants here.

"Krystal is getting active again in the Tampa market," said Tom Adams, Krystal's vice president for franchise marketing, adding that Drinnon is the first franchisee in the area. The three Krystal restaurants that exist now in the Tampa Bay area are all company-owned. "It's an absolutely dynamic market with little Krystal representation."

Drinnon and family hope that Krystal will be the key to a quieter lifestyle.

But should Floridians expect to see this former political stalwart stalking the halls of power?

"I won't say the thought (of running for office) hadn't crossed my mind," he said of his years on the Tennessee political scene. "It seems people that are into that tend to make a career of it. I don't think that's the way it should be."

For now, he insists, the halls of Krystal are more than satisfactory.