Last Friday night Aaron Thompson, owner of Sapphire threw a party to celebrate the establishment’s tenth anniversary and to thank the people who have made it possible along the way. Aaron acknowledges the list is long, and he and I met recently to talk about the journey.
Born in Carbondale, Illinois, Aaron had a complicated early life, living in twenty-one different places before he was ten years old. At ten his life at least became more geographically stable when his father moved him to Knoxville and he never left. Not the most attentive student, he eventually graduated from Bearden High School, but his focus was elsewhere. He took refuge in video games, for one thing, which he actually feels helped accentuate his drive to succeed, as the point of the games is to press to the next accomplishment or the next level and he maintains that focus even now.
Upon graduating from high school he took classes at Pellissippi State and UT. Intending to make video games, he took a couple of classes in computer programming before realizing it wasn’t for him. He considered pursuing the artistic side of game development, but hadn’t drawn in a long time. Realizing he liked writing and had done well in social studies and English in high school, he eventually changed his major to history.
A consistent thread through his teen years was his work ethic. He began work as early as he legally could do so and worked as many hours as he was allowed. Most of it involved the food and liquor service in some way. At fifteen he worked as a dishwasher at Bob Evans, a job he still calls one of the hardest he’s ever had. He worked fast food places like McDonald’s and KFC. Once he got a car he was able to consider a more diverse choice of work place, working as much as forty hours a week during high school.
A job as a server at Chili’s helped him understand that he could make far more money at an establishment which served alcohol. He doubled his money and moved out on his own. He says even then he was “driven by an innate need to serve.” He worked at Silver Spoon in Farragut where he realized he was good at serving. It was his first bartending job and he like the fact that he actually made something with his hands and the fact that servers had to go through him gave him his first taste of leadership. He soon became bar manager.
He worked at Kingston Alley, a very large sports bar, where he learned additional valuable lessons. It was his first experience with high-volume bartending and, interestingly enough, with regulars. This increase in earnings allowed him to pay off bills, but the environment there was tough and he was looking for something better.
In March of 2005 he heard that Mark McDermott, from Seattle, and Matthew Newell from New York were opening a bar downtown that promised to be the change he was looking for. He found them to be very friendly and, after hiring him to be the first bartender at Sapphire, they treated him better than any of the bosses he’d ever had. All the employees he says were treated like “part of team, a friend or a family member.”
In many respects, he says, “Downtown felt like a new start. The owners were passionate about doing something very different.” Waiting on a professionals was a new experience for him, as well. Aaron served the first drink ever served at Sapphire to Sam Maynard, Director of the James White Fort. Sam describes it in his own folksy way saying, “Aaron proceeded to get me likkered up.” Sam’s been a regular ever since and spoke at the celebration.
Aaron, true to form, worked as many shifts as possible, working long hours while finishing his studies at UT. By the beginning of 2006 he was promoted to bar manager and a year later to general manager. Within the first couple of years Matthew sold his share of the bar to Randy Burleson, who also owns Aubrey’s, Barley’s, Sunspot and others. In 2008, when Mark decided he wanted to sell his portion, Aaron developed a business plan and approached Randy with the possibility of Randy helping him purchase Mark’s portion. Instead Randy suggested he buy it all and he helped Aaron make it a reality.
The story illustrates another belief Aaron holds and that is that along with hard work, there has to be some good luck with timing. Aaron had just built a house and the economic crash had begun. The fact that he was able to secure the business at that point was a huge turning point in his life and he’s very appreciative toward Randy who make it all work. He was twenty-nine years old and owned a restaurant and bar on Gay Street.
The enterprise was successful from the beginning and, while not minimizing his hard work, he also recognizes that the explosion of downtown development as a key to that success, mentioning the opening of Regal Cinemas and the success of the Tennessee as important engines of the success of the bar. He noted that the first night they were open they sold three of their $350 Sapphire Martinis and one person lost her Sapphire and returned to buy another.
One of the people you’ll see in the photographs – although a bit reluctantly – is Amie Snyder. She’s been in the restaurant since nearly the beginning and has been an important managing partner for Aaron. Her signature cocktails have put the bar on the map, as she repeatedly won “best bartender,” in Knoxville. She followed Aaron as bartender, then took each position as he moved up into the ownership. Aaron appreciates both her friendship and the major contribution she has made to Sapphire in the last nine years.
Almost everything has been replaced inside the business since his purchase. The bar was updated, the walls behind the liquors lighted, a new seating area was recently included. The beautiful African Mahogany cases remain from Kimball’s Jewelry Store which inhabited the space from 1933 to 2004. David Dewhirst owns the building which is over a century old. The name, “Sapphire,” is a tip of the hat to the heritage of the space as a jewelry store.
There have been ups and downs with menus and so forth, but the basic idea has been consistent from the beginning with the vision of being a modern cocktail bar and restaurant. This has allowed the growth of relationships with other businesses, for example, and Aaron notes that local hotels often steer tourists or business travelers in their direction. They’ve been doing craft cocktails from the beginning, in 2005, and he noted that the craft cocktail movement had just started in New York City in the early 2000’s.
Aaron travels extensively to conferences and conventions in cities like Chicago, New Orleans and New York to keep up with latest trends in the cocktail industry and to find the best vendors. He wants the best for Knoxville and he wants Sapphire to be a major part of that for the next ten years and beyond.
If you’ve ever spent time in the bar, you’ll know it can be many different things to different people depending on the day and the hour. It’s a place where business happens after business hours and where professionals come to relax and network. It is a restaurant offering items which are virtually all made-from-scratch. They’ve offered free-range chicken and grass-fed beef since well before it was a craze. They work with many local and regional vendors like Springer Mountain Poultry, Painted Hills Beef, Cruze Dairy Farms, Flour Head Bakery, John Mixon Farms and Sweetwater Valley Cheese. It’s also a high volume, high energy lounge, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights when DJs provide the music, but during the week, those later hours are when most of the craft cocktails are sold.
Currently employing fourteen people, they also do catering for small events and often host events at the restaurant. They’ve catered events at the Standard and at UT. Aaron has rotated through the various points of service in recent years making sure that the kitchen is run properly (it is currently under his direction) and he’s worked with the wait staff and bartenders as well making sure the customer experience is the best it can possibly be.
Whether its making a design in the top of a cocktail or taking the time to explain the ingredients and reasoning in one of bartender Amie Snyder’s signature creations, I’ve experienced or witnessed much of what he’s talking about. He says, “Service is what people remember. I am actively and constantly trying to improve the experience.
And so, they celebrated. Both of the original owners flew in for the event. The mayor spoke and regulars celebrated. While new businesses are always welcome and exciting, it’s also important that we recognize and continue to appreciate the ones that have been here from early in our downtown transformation. A business doesn’t last ten years in a competitive environment without a lot of hard work, maybe some good timing and also a good experience to offer the consumer.