One Business Closes, Another Hangs On: Empty Spots on Market Square

Tupelo Honey, 1 Market Square, Knoxville, October 2012

One of the things I really enjoy about writing this blog is the opportunity to talk to entrepreneurs who are excited about a new business venture. Generally, there is a fifty percent chance the venture will fail. Very possibly the joy they experience in the opening will fade to a more monotonous day-to-day routine. Exceptions exist, of course. Today I bring news of one of each.

Years ago, when Market Square just started finding a stride it might one day hit, La Costa became one of our favorite restaurants downtown. It opened around 2005, I believe, and served food that gave a nod to Latin, a nod to southern and generally offered some sort of surprise. It almost always veered just a little outside my norm and made me uncomfortable in a very good way. Cozy and welcoming, we usually didn’t consider another restaurant.

31 Bistro, Market Square, Knoxville, October 2012

Time alters everything, of course. Ownership changed in the fall of 2010 when Sabrina Brittain, a former teacher purchased the business. After a year or so, the name changed to 31 Bistro with Ms. Brittain explaining she wanted to make it her own. An emphasis on farm-to-table products was touted. Other restaurants opened all around and competition increased. Several restaurants on the western side of the square offered various versions of Latin food.

I’ll confess I ate there less as time moved on. A combination of factors contributed, I’m sure. We had a brunch there that didn’t seem as good as it might have been. The coffee, which any long-term reader of this blog knows is important to me, just wasn’t good. I suggested this might be an area of improvement. Happy hour became the most likely time to find us there with great half-price appetizers and good margaritas.

31 Bistro, Market Square, Knoxville, October 2012

I walked through the square Monday night, curious to see if the bustling Tupelo Honey business had diminished the business at other restaurants. Nearly every patio approached capacity except one. I walked over and realized the business had closed. Most of the seating, both outdoor and indoor, has been removed. Tuesday equipment was removed. I e-mailed Ms. Brittain to find out more, but didn’t get a response.

14 Market Square, Knoxville, October 2012

It slows down progress toward an event I’m really looking forward to: a fully occupied Market Square. 31 Market Square is now the only unoccupied address on the western side of the square. The eastern side has several unoccupied store-fronts. 14 Market Square became available with the departure of Marble Slab. The building subsequently changed hands and is now owned by the owners of the Tomato Head, just next door. It seems to me Tomato Head could use the additional capacity, but I’m not sure what the plans are for the space.

36 Market Square, Knoxville, October 2012
34 Market Square, Knoxville, October 2012

The northeastern side of the square has the dubious honor of having the lowest occupation rate. 36 Market Square continues to await Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt. While plans were announced months ago, little evidence of the pending move has presented itself. Just next door, 34 Market Square recently appeared on the market for about two seconds before being purchased. It currently boasts an operating engineering office, but the building purportedly will be renovated and the bottom floor will be reserved for retail space. 30 Market Square continues to be the biggest atrocity on the square with it’s boarded up store front covering, incredibly, the architectural firm of Weeks, Ambrose and McDonald.

30 to 32 Market Square, Knoxville, October 2012

32 Market Square offered me a surprise as I walked past: Harb’s Tailor is still open. The building was purchased earlier this year by Scott and Bernadette West. At that time, in addition to Harb’s, it housed Swagger. An announcement indicated that an entertainment venue, Scruffy City Hall, would set up at the address. Swagger promptly closed and I, incorrectly, assumed the tailor did as well.

Mr. Harb, 32 Market Square, Knoxville, October 2012

Mr. Harb assured me he is still, “hanging on.” He tells me he is eighty-five years old, has operated the business in that spot for twenty years and has no intention of “going home,” unless he’s told he can no longer have the space. Originally pulling his business from the downtown workers, he’s seen increased profits with the advent of downtown residents. I like the idea of having such an organic, old-style operation on the square and I’d encourage you to support it.

So, there you have it, with the departure of La Costa, I count 4 1/2 empty store-fronts on the square along with one that’s simply ugly. With the way businesses come and go, maybe that should be considered full capacity. It’s pretty close, but I still think it would be cool if we could hit 100%. It would have to be the first time since, perhaps, the 1960’s. Anybody know? Jack Neely, you reading this? John in Knoxville?