Taking in the Community During a Christmas Blizzard, the Quality Inn in Kodak, Tennessee Is the Nicest Place in America
When the residents of Eastern Tennessee went to bed on Christmas Eve of 2020 dreaming of a white Christmas, they had no idea what the next day would bring.
For Michelle and James Hundley, it was a moment of truth. Ahead of them lay a snowy, icy road. Behind them, their cold, unheated house. In the valley below, a warm, welcoming room at the Quality Inn in Kodak, Tennessee. All the Hundleys had to do was get there, and Sean Patel, the hotel owner, would do the rest.
In the freezing days to come, the Hundleys would become part of Patel’s extended family, and his modest hotel would become their temporary home. They’d be warm, they’d be fed, and they wouldn’t be asked to pay anything they couldn’t afford. So would dozens of others just like them.
But how to get through a historic blizzard?
But first there was the little matter of getting past the snow. Winter storms aren’t unheard of in eastern Tennessee, but the one that hit Kodak in December 2020 proved historic. People across the region fell asleep on Christmas Eve dreaming of a white Christmas, but the holiday brought dark clouds and plunging temperatures. As the wind picked up, trees fell, taking down utility lines. Snow blew, pipes froze, and power and phone service went out. More than 44,000 Tennesseans would wake to find themselves celebrating Christmas without electricity.
The Hundleys were among them. The couple live on 35 acres on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains. The storm had quickly left their house freezing and dark, and for two nights they slept in their truck. But after 58 hours without power, they’d had enough. It was time to move to warmer quarters. The only problem: There was no room at the neighboring hotels. At least, not for local residents like the Hundleys.
That’s a familiar story around Kodak, where tourists are the lifeblood of the economy and where hotel signs reading “no locals” are not unheard of.
Kodak is a tiny town in Sevier County, nestled in a narrow valley southeast of Knoxville. Once known mainly for logging and farming, the rural area now relies on visitors who come to the area, drawn to the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the Dollywood amusement park.
Dozens of hotels line the highways. Most aren’t cheap, and rates climb during the holidays. But many hotels also had a policy against renting rooms to local residents, concerned they might use the rooms for things they didn’t want to do in their homes, even for criminal activity. Even in the face of a massive storm that knocked out power in the region, those hotels refused to lift their “no locals” rule.
Facing the double whammy of high prices and discrimination, their truck was looking like the Hundleys’ only option. That is, until Michelle stumbled upon a Facebook post from the nearby Quality Inn.
“We will take care of you”
“Hello neighbors! If you are affected by the power outages, please call us at Quality Inn in Kodak, right off Exit 407. We will take care of you,” Patel wrote on the hotel’s page. “We are not charging the usual holiday or weekend rates. We had a few cancellations and have allocated those rooms to help out.”
Not only would the hotel not lock out locals or use the emergency as an excuse to price gouge, Patel promised to keep rates down, eventually locking them in as low as corporate regulations would allow: $25 per night.
It was the lifeline the Hundleys needed. They called the Quality Inn and were promised a room if they could get there safely. James pointed their truck down the mountain road and navigated the icy roads, and, 45 treacherous minutes later, the Hundleys spotted the green Quality Inn sign rising from West Dumplin Valley Road, across from the Boot Barn and Mountain Motorsports.
The couple unloaded their overnight bag and stepped through the doors into the hotel lobby, where they experienced the first real warmth—physical and emotional—they had felt in days.
“They greeted us and asked how they can help, even after we checked in,” says Michelle. “We didn’t have anything. We couldn’t afford anything. Sean didn’t have to do what he did.”
But if you ask Patel, 37, he’ll likely say that he did have to. An immigrant from India, Patel, who was born a Hindu but attended a Christian school, believes in the concept of karma, a spiritual principle held by Hindus and Buddhists that those who do good to others will receive good in return. It’s an idea that aligns nicely with the traditional values of his new home in the American South.
Patel came to America in 2004 and settled in Tennessee, drawn by its friendly reputation. “I saw how much people helped each other in the South, and it got to me,” he explains. “It’s not always about money.”
An aunt taught him the ins and outs of his new country while piling food on his plate at mealtimes and giving him a bed to sleep in each night. Soon Patel was on his own two feet, earning a degree from the University of Tennessee, running hotels to support his wife and son, and riding his motorcycle along the roads in and around Knoxville for fun.
Along the way, he never forgot how he’d started. “I had a family who took me in,” Patel says.
A passion for giving back to the community
So as the snow flew that Christmas, Patel knew his neighbors would need someone to take them in. As the freeze set in, he turned to Facebook. “We will take care of you,” Patel wrote.
It was Christmas Day, when the Hundleys were still sleeping in their truck, when Carole and Paul Williams fortuitously saw Patel’s post. The couple had started their Christmas by driving into Kodak but soon found themselves cold, stranded, and worried. “It was like a blizzard,” says Carole. “I called my neighbor and she said not to come home.” They tried getting back but saw car after car stuck in the snow. Utility workers urged them to turn around. So the Williamses started looking for a place to stay.
Like the Hundleys, at first they had no luck with area hotels: either no rooms or none for them, thanks to those “no locals” restrictions. A friend of the Williamses’ spotted Patel’s Facebook post, and soon the couple were hauling down the highway while Patel texted to make sure they were OK. Carole wasn’t sure what they’d find when they arrived. “I was a little bit wary,” she recalls. After all, $25 a night is pretty cheap for a hotel room.
But she needn’t have worried. “We felt safe the minute we walked in,” Carole says. “They rolled out the red carpet.” Their room was clean and warm. They could stay for as long as they needed, staff told them. When the couple went downstairs for breakfast the next morning, they found a smiling, bespectacled man offering them hot coffee. It was Patel.
Jessica Tezak for Reader's Digest
“Sean was standing there in the dining area and was like, ‘You guys going to stay for breakfast?’ ” Williams says.
From that day on, Patel’s Quality Inn was packed. Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, all 60 rooms were booked, with as many as eight or nine family members sharing a room. The weather may have made a mess of the holidays for many in the area, but inside the inn, the Christmas spirit was alive and well—with Patel playing Santa, giving the gifts of electricity, water, warmth, and friendship.
By day, the halls filled with locals, tourists, and utility workers who stopped by to chat and sip hot coffee. By night, strands of lights twinkled quietly among the lobby’s handmade Nativity displays. Patel and his guests called it their Christmas Village, complete with tiny houses, a chugging train, and Santa’s sleigh hidden among the little trees that Patel’s seven-year-old son, Rudra—aka Rudy—helped him set up.
A Christmas miracle turns into a New Year’s blessing
And as the new year approached, with hundreds of area homes still without power, Patel let everyone know they had a friend out by the highway. Looking for a room? He’ll try to supply one. In need of a shower? “Bring your towels,” he wrote on Facebook. “And guess what, it’s free!”
As residents made their way to Dumplin Valley Road, the Facebook testimonials poured in:
“It is a blessing to know that in the midst of the darkness, there are still caring, thoughtful people that help in time of need!” wrote Chelle Renee.
“We spent last night there,” posted Bryan Holloway. “First time since early Christmas Eve we had power and running water. Thank you so much!”
“Sean and staff are amazing!!” wrote April Fetzer Smith. “They have personally helped my family when we were stranded in the Smoky Mountains!”
No one who knows Patel was surprised by his generosity. Harold Hines lives in an extended-stay residence Patel owns, just behind the Quality Inn. Hines landed there four years ago after losing his business. When he was down and out, says Hines, Patel welcomed his family with open arms.
“You will never go hungry even if you don’t have food,” says Hines. “Sean has made this a home.”
“I frequently ask him to dial it back a bit because he spends so much of his own money and energy to help others,” says Patel’s friend Steve Smith, who nominated the Quality Inn as the Nicest Place in America. “But he has such a big heart, I know he will only give more.”
And he has. Patel owns a second hotel, the Segovia Lodge in Junction, Texas, near San Antonio. When a similar freeze hit there in February 2021, Patel let his guests stay and eat free all week. And when the Segovia property lost power too, stranded truckers kept the fire in the lobby fireplace going all night while guests slept on the lobby floor.
“It wasn’t about who was Black, White, Democrat, Republican. COVID, or no COVID. Everyone was a family,” says Shelly Shirley, a manager at the Segovia. “I’ve never witnessed someone like Sean.”
Today, things there and in Kodak are back to (mostly) normal. But the next time there’s trouble, the residents of Sevier County know where they’ll find a safe haven. “He helped a whole lot of people who didn’t have anything,” Michelle Hundley says of Sean Patel. “He was the only one who stepped up to help the locals.”
For more heartwarming stories of kindness, check out our finalists for Nicest Places in America 2021.