A man who has owned the Western Sizzlin Steak House restaurant in Rocky Mount for more than four decades has died.
Tommy Cliett, who succumbed to cancer on New Year’s Eve at 76 years old, is described by friends and employees as someone who would go out of his way to help employees and for being a stickler for customer service.
They also said that Cliett was admired by his employees and went out of his way to become friendly with many of his regulars.
More than 40 years ago, he took his wife, Anne, out to a stretch of empty land along Wesleyan Boulevard to show her where he wanted to open the new steakhouse.
At the time, the Clietts lived in Georgia, and Tommy Cliett saw how well one of the restaurants in the new chain was doing down there, Anne Cliett said.
In 1973, the site he chose in Rocky Mount was in the boonies, with no Golden East Crossing mall across the street and no string of businesses as there are today.
Anne Cliett said she had serious reservations about her husband’s choice of locations.
“He thought this could work,” she said. “I thought he had lost his mind. They had just finished a Bonanza (steakhouse) on Sunset (Avenue) and I thought we would be better off over there.”
Anne Cliett said her late husband cared about customer service.
“He was all about quality, and he said, ‘You have to treat customers right,’” she said.
Cliett’s daughter, Cindy Wilder, said before moving to Rocky Mount, her family lived in Brunswick, Ga.
“We were just an average family and when we would go out to eat, we’d eat at the Western Sizzlin in Brunswick,” she said. “The man who owned it happened to be a friend of dads. They started talking, and I think he liked the concept of an average family being able to go out and have a good meal in a restaurant and it not costing them an arm and a leg. That is really how it all started.”
She said her father wanted to make sure customers were treated right.
“He’d go out his way to make sure they had enjoyable experience,” she said. “He did we have a tremendous amount of regular customers.”
Kenneth Arrington, who worked for Cliett at the Western Sizzlin from 1994 until 2000, worked his way up from a bus boy in high school to the front line and then to a management position. He left the restaurant in 2000 to pursue a career in education. Arrington went to see Cliett a few weeks ago after hearing he was sick.
“He was a very good man, very good to work for,” he said. “He took the restaurant business seriously. He wanted to make sure customers were served in the right manner.”
Arrington, who now works for H.D. Pope Funeral Home, said Cliett told him that he could always come back to work at the Western Sizzlin.
“Even in his sickness, he was concerned about people’s well being,” Arrington said. “He wanted to make sure the restaurant would go on strongly after he died.” His son-in-law, Ron Wilder, has been the manager of the restaurant since retiring from his job as an N.C. Highway Patrol trooper in 1997. He said Cliett wanted to get to know all of the customers. “He was so thankful for all of the loyal customers we had over 40 years in the Twin Counties area,” he said.
“He was a gracious man.”