TEMPLE TERRACE — When the restaurant opened 50 years and four months ago, a pharmacy with a lunch counter was at the end of the block, and Busch Boulevard had just expanded to six lanes. There was not much else.
Lupton’s Buffet and Catering, also known as Lupton’s Fat Man’s BBQ and Country Cooking, was pretty much the only restaurant and the only option open late in Temple Terrace. Known for its all-you-can-eat buffet trays piled with ribs and fried chicken, mashed potatoes and collard greens, fried green tomatoes and chicken gizzards, the restaurant quickly grew a base of loyal customers.
Now there’s a 24-7 iHOP and plenty of other late night dining, drive-thru and delivery options in Temple Terrace.
Ralph Lupton, who moved his family from Nashville and started the barbecue restaurant with $10,000, said the restaurant’s recipes have stayed the same. They still make their salad dressing from scratch.
But overhead costs are increasing, said Lupton, 83, and keeping the restaurant open was becoming impractical.
“We came down here on a wing and a prayer,” he said. “It’s time to hang it up ... The independent restaurants are kind of going by the wayside.”
On Christmas Eve, the restaurant that opened in 1968 at 5299 E Busch Blvd., will serve its last meal.
Lupton’s wife, Nancy, 80, said 50 years goes by fast.
When they started, they had young sons, 3 and 4. They lived across the street from the restaurant and had no babysitter, so the boys came with them. From kindergarten onward, they helped to wash dishes after school.
“Helping or in the way, I don’t know,” she said. “But they were always here.”
Nancy Lupton said she can’t remember many days spent outside the restaurant, and customers came to know her and her husband well. In the early days, Ralph kept a cot in the kitchen and stayed overnight to make sure recipes were made correctly. Cameras helped with that in later years, he said.
When they started out, they sometimes put customers to work, Nancy Lupton said, asking them to handle the cash register if there weren’t enough workers. Ralph was known for taste-testing French fries off customers’ plates, who’d learn in to guard them when he came around.
Shortly after they opened, Ralph Lupton remembered, a teenager who’d come to eat with her mother asked for corn on the cob, which the restaurant had run out. He went to the grocery store and bought the corn, but when he came back, the girl’s mother said she couldn’t eat it because of her braces. So he cut the corn kernels off for her.
A few years ago, he said, a woman came into the restaurant with a young girl and asked if he remembered her.
“‘I’m the little girl you cut off corn from the cob for, and this is my granddaughter,’” she told him.
Dignitaries and celebrities from Lawton Chiles to Arnold Schwarzenegger have dined there. But the real celebrities, Nancy Lupton said, were the customers who kept coming back.
“They’re the real special people,” she said. “We’ve done well, but it’s because of our customers.”
The Luptons have hosted picnics for foster families, and fed many law enforcement officers over the years. The running joke was that if someone needed a police officer on Busch Boulevard, they could find one at Lupton’s.
Hillsborough Sheriff’s Maj. Alan Hill, whose father also worked for the Sheriff’s Office, said he grew up meeting his father at the restaurant. When he joined the department, he often ate there, as it was the only place open at 2 a.m. He even met his wife there.
“It just wasn’t a business for them,” Hill said. “They were core pillars of the community. They were always there.”
Jack Sandlin, who has worked at Lupton’s for 13 years, said he told the family that until they told him otherwise, he wanted to work for them.
“Temple Terrace grew up with this restaurant,” he said.
Ralph and Nancy now have a great-granddaughter. The restaurant has a Facebook page. And the couple is far from done, Nancy Lupton said.
The business will continue its catering services and maintain its Boggy Bottom Ranch restaurant, run by their son. Their barbecue menu will move to RJ’s Wings and Things, which the Luptons own, at 5025 E Fowler Ave.
“We’re just starting again,” she said.