Archer Bagley’s path to opening his fifth Archer’s Barbeque location hasn’t been a perfectly direct journey. His first location in Farragut closed. His second, a drive-through idea taught him many useful lessons which would fuel his future success, but it closed. With the addition of the Bearden and Karns locations he hit his stride. Now with locations in West Knoxville and Powell successfully established, he and partners Clark Cowan (also chef) and Patrick Bowen (also downtown manager) are ready to make their foray into the downtown market.
Archer, originally from Memphis, attended UT from the late 80s into the 90s, receiving BS and MS degrees in Civil Engineering. Beginning with a year in Oak Ridge, he worked in related areas for fourteen years, working in software development in Boulder, Colorado and working for a time as an environmental consultant.
His only connection to barbeque during this period was an investment in Fox Brothers Barbeque in Atlanta, a group he fell in with after meeting them at a Widespread Panic concert. He later moved to Atlanta for a job with which he was dissatisfied, eventually quitting and moving to Knoxville. He decided he could, “cook barbecue as well as anyone and I can be a better businessman.”
After the initial fits and starts, he and his partners figured out that every restaurant didn’t need a kitchen. The drive-through taught them that a good return may be made off a location with food prepared elsewhere. They built an 1800 square foot commissary to deliver food to all locations, which allows them to have one executive chef and to make sure the quality of the food is the same at every restaurant. Opening a new brick and mortar becomes akin to adding seats to their restaurant. Archer pointed out that he can monitor any of the locations in real time on his phone, so he feels in touch with what is happening at all times.
Clark is not only chef for the restaurants, but is also head of construction. It’s an interesting combination. He describes himself as a “navy brat” who realized early that his “high-end, suit-and-tie job” was not what he wanted. He moved to Knoxville in the 1990s on the day of the great blizzard and attended Vet school, but ended up with a grant to attend culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Charleston. It became a lifestyle, though he pointed out that by having a commissary and multiple locations of a restaurant, he’s gone a long way toward doing everything the school said not to do.
His early culinary experience was butchering and cooking a whole hog over night for the bluegrass festival on his family’s farm. He strives to do as well each day with the pork and chicken at Archers as they did with those hogs on their farm. It’s one reason the menu remains simple: to do a few things and do them well.
The concept requires very little of a space – “a three inch drain and two bathrooms,” according to Clark. It allows them to lease retail space as opposed to restaurant space, which saves money as it generally costs less per-square-foot. Tim Hill, who is their neighbor as well as the owner of several of the other buildings they utilize, convinced them to bring the concept downtown.
Clark also noted that 95% of the materials used are compostable, but that Knoxville lacks both the composting site for businesses he’d like to see and recycling for businesses. He says if the city took these steps use of Styrofoam in restaurants (Archers does not use Styprofoam) would virtually disappear.
Of the food, the two say that they select high quality meats with no MSG or preservatives. Everything on the menu is gluten-free except for the bread because the only gluten-free bread they’ve found is frozen and they don’t own freezers. I jokingly mentioned vegetarian options – which given that it is a barbecue place seemed funny to me – but Clark said that his wife is “mostly vegetarian” and she helped develop a coleslaw sandwich that fits the bill. It’s quite popular with some customers. If you have a special request with an order, ask. The fact that everything is assembled upon order gives them the flexibility to change things up if you need it.
The meat is cooked daily and delivered to the restaurants while being maintained at 140 degrees. It’s never refrigerated after cooking and the meat isn’t pulled until you order it. An interesting twist in this arrangement is that when the pork is sold out, the stores close. They explained that the only way around that would be to cook in advance and refrigerate and they just aren’t going to do it. On the rare occasion that meat remains at the end of the day, it is donated to KARM or other organizations – something they do in a large way a couple of times a year.
You’ll find the menu here and you’ll see that it’s a low price-point for lunch, with three sizes of sandwiches and the “regular” coming in at a low $5. The barbecue plates run $10 – $12 and racks of ribs are more expensive. They also have desserts including freshly prepared pecan pie and banana pudding. Carry out is welcome and they have full meals they can put together to serve a small or a larger groups.
If you’ve noticed the beautiful new awning on the front of the building, you may be interested to know that it is replicated from the original awning from over 100 years ago. You can see a part of it in the left-hand corner of the historic photograph included here. It’s just one of the beautiful details attended to with the redevelopment of these addresses on Gay Street, each of which were originally separate buildings. Inside you’ll find beautiful tables and a large metal hog hanging from the ceiling all of which are the work of Kelly Brown of Bower Bird Sculpture. He’s the person responsible for the bicycle sculpture beside the Outdoor Center and the work on top of Scruffy City Hall.
They will open at 11:00 AM Monday through Saturday (except for today – they are shooting for noon) and 12:00 AM on Sunday. They close at 8:00 PM Sunday night, 9:00 PM Monday through Thursday night and 10:00 PM Friday and Saturday night. Check them out today at noon and see what all the fuss is about.