Fork & Pie
Mean Mug Coffeehouse
Top It Off
Fuji Japanese Steak & Sushi
Noodles & Co.
Sweet Peppers Deli
Southern Burger Co.
Milk and Honey
Qdoba Mexican Grill
Market Street Tavern
Piccadilly at Northgate Mall
Nearly two dozen prominent Chattanooga restaurants closed their doors in the past year, as many of the city's old-line establishments gave way to a new generation of entrepreneurs.
Celebrated restaurants like Niko's Southside Grill, Market Street Tavern and Table 2 ceased to exist, as food trucks, coffee shops and cafes arrived to take up the slack.
Some restaurants like Meo Mio's materialized out of nowhere, then quickly closed their doors and then reopened as a different restaurant within the same year. Others, like the Melting Pot, faded away with little explanation. A few shut their doors due to disasters, like Toast Cafe, which was almost completely gutted by a freak fire.
The total number of permitted restaurants in Hamilton County decreased from almost 1,700 in summer 2010 to 1,614 today, which health officials say mostly reflects some shrinkage in the number of mom and pop establishments.
"We have fewer small, individually-owned restaurants and more of the bigger chain restaurants," said Lowe Wilkins, program manager for Hamilton County's Food & General Sanitation unit at the Health Department.
Yet the 2012 wave of closures appeared to hit every type of restaurant, from small establishments like Myknos in Miller Plaza to franchise restaurants such as Qdoba Mexican Grill. Their replacements are a mostly young, mostly independent mix of budding food entrepreneurs, some of whom are building off previous successes in the Scenic City.
Mike Robinson, who opened Fork and Pie in 2012, previously founded Brew-haus on Frazier Avenue in 2011. Mean Mug's Matt Lewis already had The Terminal, Hair of the Dog and Honest Pint under his belt when he decided to open his Main Street Coffee House. Mike Monen and Taylor Monen, the duo who opened Community Pie in 2012, have won acclaim for previous independent ventures like Taco Mamacita, Urban Stack, and Sticky Fingers in previous years.
The fresh group of young guns is widely acknowledged as the next generation of Chattanooga restaurateurs, which isn't as enviable of a position as it may seem.
"The national average is one in five restaurants make it," said Bill Mish, president of the Tennessee Hospitality Association and general manager of Chattanooga's DoubleTree hotel. "It's probably even less when you look at restaurants that are nonbranded."
Chain restaurants like Outback, Applebee's and Red Lobster can use their larger size to save money on training and get better deals on raw food, he said. Independent restaurants, meanwhile, must deal with higher costs just to stay even. Yet some Chattanooga eateries have been able to buck the trend, expanding the food options in a city that a decade ago was a food desert, said Jeff Messinger, owner of 57-year-old Mt. Vernon restaurant on Broad Street.
"There were like eight major restaurants when we started in business," Messinger said. "Now, you see the selection is really staggering."
Though there's always high turnover in the food industry, the cream typically rises to the top, he said.
"Every day you have to get up, have a renewed spirit and say, I'm going to do it again," he said. "You have to care. The public knows when you care, and if you don't care, it can ruin a customer relationship."
Despite the obvious risks, making dreams come true can be too much to resist for some aspiring restaurateurs. Even knowing about unexpected expenses, runaway labor costs, and the oncoming regulatory tsunami, entrepreneurs are drawn to new restaurants like moths to a new wool coat.
Next foodie hotspot
One group of restaurateurs aligned with nonprofit developer River City Co. has set the 800 block of Market Street in their crosshairs as the city's next foodie hotspot.
Daniel Ocala, who with his wife, Brittany Ocala, plan to open a Cuban restaurant and bar, traveled from Miami to join in Chattanooga's downtown renaissance.
"We saw the potential of what's been coming here and the potential growth of this area," Ocala said. "You've seen Jack's Alley, that's a destination area, and for 20 years that's been really successful. I think we have the opportunity to do the same thing here on the 800 block."
Ocala won't be going it alone. Blackwell "Blacky" Smith IV is bringing Blacksmith's Bistro & Bar to the Market Street core from its current location in St. Elmo, an investment he's willing to make because he believes Chattanooga's culture is uniquely supportive of independent restaurants.
"You don't want to end up like other cities where you go downtown and there's nothing unique about it, where it's just corporate restaurant after corporate restaurant," Smith said.
The trick to generating a sustainable community of locally owned restaurants is to pull several businesses together to create a one-stop destination for customers, said Kim White, president and CEO of River City Co. She's already worked to overcome the area's parking woes, and wants to modify expensive sprinkler system rules to lower the financial burden on local eateries that want to open downtown.
"The more you can get at one time in one place, the better," said White, who is planning a block party to celebrate the influx of new restaurants downtown.
But none of those plans matter if restaurant owners can't handle the blocking and tackling of owning their own business. The secret to success isn't really a secret, experienced owners say. It's just about doing the little things like training employees, ordering good food and creating new dishes.
That's what takes up much of Taylor Monen's average day. But her persistence is the only way she can explain her restaurants' continued popularity even during the recent recession.
"The food world in general is getting very competitive and the bar is getting set higher and higher," Monen said. "I think sometimes it's shocking to people what type of lifestyle it takes to own a restaurant or be in the restaurant business."
In the restaurant business, getting comfortable can kill you. The food has got to be great, the service must be stellar and the environment needs to be fun -- every single time. Otherwise, yesterday's happy customer turns into a happy customer for someone else.
"There's a lot of risk and reward," Monen said. "The harder you work the more successful you're going to be, but it takes someone with a lot of patience, creativity and personality to really enjoy this industry."
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...