Today is the official opening of Five Bar Restaurant (Facebook) at 430 S. Gay Street. Yesterday a soft opening allowed staff to practice before opening day and the restaurant was packed. Small wonder, given the prices (free), but like Urban Woman and me, I’m sure that many of those customers will return with friends. Even with normal opening-evening bumps, it was a very pleasant experience.
Co-owners Charles Morgan, III and Cris Eddings generously agreed to sit for an interview earlier in the day and give me the details. I knew a few things from my previous article focusing on the coming restaurant. You can also go to that article to see what this space looked like just a few months ago. It was a long way from what you’ll see there today.
The two men are partners in a group of restaurants which include Five Bar Restaurants in Gainesville, Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Athens and, now, Knoxville. They are also partners in Camille’s at Crystal Beach and Chuck’s Fish in Tuscaloosa. Additionally, Charles owns Red Bay Grocery in Red Bay, Florida, Harbor Docks Seafood in Destin and Dharma Blue in Pensacola.
Harbor Docks Seafood plays a role in the other restaurants, including the new one in Knoxville. Harbor Docks is not only a restaurant, it also is a wholesale market, getting fish fresh from the Gulf and distributing them to restaurants all over the country and into Canada. Before fish are shipped to New York City, Boston, Montreal and Toronto, however, they are flown directly to this and the other restaurants in the group, assuring fresh gulf fish every day. The catch of the day is literally what was caught for Harbor Docks. They also own some of the boats, making it a very in-house operation.
I asked about use of local foods and Charles said, “I want to buy locally as much as possible, because it makes common sense, not because it’s a movement.” He made it clear that he doesn’t do it to make the restaurant look good, but rather because local is fresher and the company wants to be involved in the community. They plan to be at the Market Square Farmers’ Market Saturday morning meeting local farmers and determining what might be possible on that front. They age their own beef in-house and are hoping to contract with Benton’s Bacon. Cris added that, “simplicity helps us focus on the best available products.”
Beyond the food, the labor is local – they bring in very few employees from other cities – and they focus on local art. The decor, I noticed, has a number of local touches, such as Johnny Majors’ photograph and a Cormac McCarthy painting. The music for the soft opening was provided by jazz combo Gypsy Hombres from Nashville and the venue will feature live jazz every Sunday for brunch hours (which also includes a Bloody Mary Bar). I suggested that a wealth of jazz talent may be found inside our fair city, so they may look locally for that, as well.
The concept, as I’ve noted before, is to offer a choice of five appetizers, five entrees, one dessert, five white wines and five reds, along with five featured cocktails, though any cocktail will be available from the full bar. The thinking here, according to Charles is to strike a balance between offering too little and offering an overwhelming assortment of choices. He wryly notes, “Life is complicated enough.”
With fewer dishes to prepare, service can be faster and the kitchen staff can focus on the quality of what they provide. Salads are served with the entree and are not listed on the menu, also improving service time. One of the larger restaurants downtown, Five Bar can seat about 140 and accommodate private gatherings for about fifty in the mezzanine.
The decor and design for each restaurant is decided by a committee, but one common theme is noticeable immediately upon entering (or even passing by – I’ve had several people ask me, already) and that is the chandeliers. Several dozen boasting a wide range in style, size and color dangle from the ceiling. Charles said that lighting in restaurants is one of the most complicated choices and once they thought of the concept, customers seemed to like it, so they replicate it at new restaurants. The lighting consists primarily of chandeliers from 1930s and 1940s Italy and France by way of Belgium (it’s complicated). One exception is the largest chandelier which came from the home of Dan Uggla, Atlanta Braves second baseman.
Being a part of the community is also important to the restaurant, and here Charles made a distinction between “giving back to the community,” a phrase he doesn’t like, and simply doing what any good citizen of a community should do. The restaurant currently employs about thirty-five people and manager Sean Lakos said, “that will nearly double when we start serving lunch,” which comes sometime in October. Sean recently re-located to Knoxville where much of his family is located, so he said it was like coming home, for him. Additionally, Cris will live predominately in Knoxville for the foreseeable future in order to make certain the restaurant operates as intended and gets off to a good start.
All employees will be encouraged to do community service for a 501C3, whether Habitat for Humanity or a local no-kill animal shelter or other group. How do they encourage it? They will pay their employees up to 100 hours through the course of a year to volunteer.They also offer their own 501c3 opportunity: They will soon have a local food truck called American Lunch, which distributes soups and gumbo, bread, iced tea and water, free to those who need it. Many of their employees in other cities choose to volunteer through that effort.
There are other differences in how the company treats employees: They pay 60% of health insurance premiums for employees – no matter how many hours they work. Employees who reach the six-month mark are also eligible for a 401K. Employees who agree to work out twice a week are provided a free gym membership. They feel that all these things make for healthier, better employees. Charles added, “We want our employees to be able to afford to eat in the restaurant where they work.”
Another program which may or may not make it to Knoxville this year, but they have done in their other Five Bar Restaurants is a free Thanksgiving Dinner. Donations are accepted and the money goes to Habitat for Humanity or Destiny Harvest, which is a program for distributing food to the needy.
I asked them how they came to select Knoxville for one of their restaurants and they mentioned Gary Higgins, an acquaintance, who lives in Knoxville. At his suggestion they came to Knoxville and looked at the Tailor Loft Building and loved the space. They have no interest in locating in strip malls or in building new construction. They also noted that the restaurants downtown are full and felt there was an opportunity to do something different. It seemed to fit. Charles pointed out that Mr. Johnson, who owns the building, traveled, unbeknownst to them, to Tuscaloosa to eat at the Five Bar there, before giving them his approval. They respected that.
So, how was the food at the soft opening? Very, very good. Urban Woman and I ate far more than we should. We worked our way through two appetizers; Baked Avocado and Uptown Shrimp. I’ve always said I don’t like avocado, but I may have to change that assessment. The shrimp was absolutely amazing. Urban Woman got the Paneed Chicken and I got the Stuffed Shrimp and both were great. We also ate the White Chocolate Bread Pudding and it was light and just sweet enough with our coffee. We also enjoyed a superb margarita and a glass of pinot grigio.
The portions were such that next time we’ll likely order one appetizer and one entree to share. We’ll also try to hit some of their specials like happy hour from 4- 6 (half price wine and beer and $5 cocktails), Wine-down (Half price bottles of wine on Wednesdays). In any case, we will definitely return. Five Bar is a very nice addition to the downtown restaurant selection. Give them a try and tell them you read about it here.