published Sunday, April 1st, 2012

Risks and sleepless nights pay off for downtown Chattanooga restaurateurs

Matt Lewis stands inside the Mean Mug coffee shop on Main Street. Lewis is a businessman who owns part of the shop as well as part of the Terminal Brewhouse, Hair of the Dog and the Honest Pint.
Matt Lewis stands inside the Mean Mug coffee shop on Main Street. Lewis is a businessman who owns part of the shop as well as part of the Terminal Brewhouse, Hair of the Dog and the Honest Pint.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
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Matt Lewis hates sleep.

Owning a restaurant takes a lot of work. A huge amount of effort goes into menu creation, staffing, finding distributors, marketing and the thousands of little problems that develop every day at just one restaurant.

Lewis has four.

But don't feel bad for him. He knew what he was getting into after he built his first venture, Hair of the Dog. Back in 2005, he'd work constructing the space until he passed out in a sleeping bag on the floor.

"Then I woke up and started working again," he said. "The reward is I can build something that's going to become a staple to this city."

The work quickly paid off for Lewis and his three partners. Within two years they recovered the $100,000 they invested. In 2009, Lewis went on to build the Terminal Brewhouse, followed by the Honest Pint at the end of 2010. His most recent venture, Mean Mug coffeeshop, opened in December.

In addition to those four eateries, downtown Chattanooga has 58 locally owned restaurants competing with 23 chains. Kim White, head of downtown development group River City Co., said that fact helps attract people to the area.

"It's very important. That's one of the things that's kept our city so unique and authentic and interesting," she said. "We do love to support local. This was a big thing even before the local movement."

Lewis found success by looking for niches Chattanooga was missing. He started Hair of the Dog because he wanted his city to have an English pub. He started the Terminal because he thought Chattanooga needed a brewpub.

"It's kind of an old-world idea, the local brewery feeding the community," he said.

He located his old-world idea in what was at the time an older, rundown location. Before the Terminal opened near the corner of Main and Market streets, there wasn't much of a reason to go down to that part of town after work hours. The building the Terminal now sits in was condemned, and it took nearly $1.5 million from the building's owner, Lewis and his partners to get it ready for opening day.

That investment also quickly paid off. The restaurant has turned a profit and seen consistent growth in the three years since it opened, flourishing with other Main Street businesses such as Niedlov's Bakery and Link 41 Sausage.

"The Terminal being on that corner has really helped, and Niedlov's has really helped the Terminal," Lewis said. "Everything has played off each other."

Birth of the restaurant scene

Most every industry in Chattanooga looks different than it did 20 years ago, and restaurants are no different. Before the Scenic City was so scenic, it was dominated by meat-and-three's. Most people in the area doubted a restaurant would succeed if its specialty wasn't steak and mashed potatoes.

And don't even bother with a dinner menu.

"Once the cars were gone, downtown was empty," said Sally Moses, who has run 212 Market Restaurant with her sister and mother since it opened in 1992. "People said no one would come downtown."

But 212 started serving food just before the Tennessee Aquarium opened its doors. The restaurant helped push the riverfront revitalization, proving Chattanoogans and tourists alike are eager to support the local eateries.

"Everyone said they wouldn't be, but I think overall they have been," Moses said. "People take a lot of pride in them."

That type of support has been increasingly common in urban areas. Chattanooga's local restaurant density is similar to other major downtown areas across Tennessee and the United States.

"That's where the demand is, in those urban cores," said Greg Adkins, chief executive officer of the Tennessee Hospitality Association. "They just want something different a lot of the time."

Lewis can relate to wanting something different. He's jumped at every chance he's gotten to start something new.

The Honest Pint struggled a bit after opening. He got too cocky, he said, spending too much up front instead of taking the conservative approach he took with his past two operations.

"We kind of set ourselves up to suffer a little bit," he said. "There were definitely some weeks at the Honest Pint where I wasn't sleeping well because I was scared of what the books looked like."

He said he's sleeping better now, and expects good things from the Irish pub this year. His restaurants work, he said, because he and his partners get creative, find good employees and develop unique identities for each of their concepts. Sure, he has to get up early every morning to make muffins for Mean Mug, and his bars stay open till around 3 a.m., but he wouldn't change a thing.

"We know who we are. We're not trying to be everything to everyone," he said. "If you like what you're doing and you want to do it, you can go far."

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