It’s easy to give the address of downtown Knoxville’s latest food addition: Empire Deli is located at 625 S. Gay Street, #140. The task of explaining where it is – particularly to people unfamiliar with downtown is a bit more difficult. Your best hope is to go to the western side of the 600 block and look for the black and white “Empire Deli” sign. Follow it into the alley. Although “alley” sounds more edgy than this space deserves. It is the space created between the East Tennessee History Center and the Centre Square Building (which is the one next to Rowing Man). Got it?
If you are familiar with downtown, then you know where Higher Grounds was located for years – though you may be like me and never caught it open. Empire Deli is in the same spot. The space is larger than I expected, with ample dinning space and an area that could easily host a small meeting. Vintage photographs line the walls, including one of the original signs from Raven Records when it was located on Cumberland back in the late 80s.
Offering a selection of “grab and go” pre-prepared sandwiches as well as four different salads, five different sandwiches, hot dogs and a selection of ingredients from which customers may build their own six, eight or twelve inch subs, there’s likely something for everyone. As the fourth sub shop in a few block area of downtown, co-owner John Wright says he feels their emphasis on steamed subs in the tradition of Sam and Andy’s on the strip and the recently closed Vic and Bill’s in north Knoxville, sets them apart a bit from the others – though he was quick to compliment what each of them do, as well as Nixon’s, which isn’t downtown.
Urban Girl and I dropped in on yesterday’s opening and settled on sharing a meatball sandwich and chips. Urban Girl is about as close to a five-year-old vegetarian as they come when they haven’t been pushed in that direction. She can generally do without meat of any sort and I figured I’d have to buy her another meal after we left. I didn’t: She absolutely wore out the meatballs, which were so thick neither of us could get our mouths around them, so we wound up eating them with a fork. One sandwich would be plenty for many couples. They graciously cut it in half and brought us an extra basket.
Co-owner John Wright who, along with the other owners, wife Jenny Wright, and husband and wife Jamie and Meg Akins, continue to work other full-time jobs, said it was important to him and for his children to understand what it means to own and work a family business and to provide jobs for people. His mother had operated a pre-school and his father a carpet store and the values he’d learned working in a family business were important to him. About three years ago, this impulse led him to co-purchase I Love NY Pizza from previous owner Ted Cioffi. He soon moved the south Knoxville eatery to west Knoxville and has enjoyed success in the new location.
He was attracted to restaurant operation because he feels that, if the hard work is done, it’s a very rewarding and likely successful area in which to work. Service, food quality, location and convenience, if attended to will produce success. He also enjoys the fact that people are taking a break from their routine to enjoy themselves and really enjoy life for the time they are in his restaurant and he has the opportunity to share that experience with them and enhance it by providing the food and service they seek. He says he enjoys being, “surrounded by people who are trying to enjoy life.”
But he wanted a presence downtown and when he realized that Higher Grounds had closed, he became very interested in that location. He had looked around downtown’s available retail spaces to know that the kind of space he would need to operate the kind of shop he wanted has become difficult to find. The space did not contain a vent that would allow him to operate more of a full-service restaurant, but it met the needs of a sub shop.
As a starting point, the store employs six people who work more-or-less full time. The hours are 11:00 – 3:00, Monday through Saturday. He did not apply for a beer or liquor license, though if he attempts dinner hours he says he may revisit that decision. He offers Three Bears Coffee, locally roasted by Jeff Scheafnocker, which I’ve written about before. He feels it likely that he will offer breakfast starting sometime in September with bagels, muffins and breakfast sandwiches.
So, duck into the alley and check it out.