It was just a few weeks ago that Karen Sproles announced the closure of both locations of The Lunchbox. I’d written about the downtown location when they moved from the First Tennessee Plaza to Market Street in 2011. At that time Karen and her husband Don operated two locations, but had a plan to phase out of the restaurant in the next few years. Don, unfortunately, died unexpectedly the following summer. Karen continued the restaurants, but this past December decided it was time to leave the business as the couple had planned.
Initially it appeared the business would not continue, but Rex Jones and his son Bradford Jones, owners of Bradford Catered Events, purchased the brand name and will operate both the downtown location and the Atrium location on Weisgarber. Karen Sproles will consult with the new ownership team for at least the first six months. She’s spent the last two weeks teaching their kitchen staff how to prepare her recipes.
The Lunchbox and Bradford Catered Events have a somewhat parallel history. The Lunchbox started in 1981 while Rex Jones founded Bradford Catering in 1982. Each ultimately established a commissary for food preparation and delivered to their restaurants or catered events. When word of the Lunchbox closure began to circulate Bradford reached out to Karen to discuss the possibility of a purchase. It felt like a logical extension of the business model they already had in place.
Rex Bradford operated the Environment Restaurant at the Knoxville Zoo – the first full service, open-air restaurant in the U.S. to be operated in a zoological park – and later owned Abner’s Attic in the Baker-Peters Home. Catering, however, formed the core of his business from the beginning. Born and raised in Knoxville, Rex worked in the food business through high school and college, even though he majored in Broadcast Management, so becoming concessionaire at the zoo seemed like a logical step. But family roots in cooking go even further back.
Francis Wiley Jones, Rex’ mother, utilized her Home Economics degree from UT to become a cook for KUB – which was then known as the “power board.” She taught others how to cook with electricity in the 1930s and had a radio show broadcast from their building on Gay Street. She also worked out of a trailer equipped with a kitchen to take her demonstrations on the road.
Rex enjoyed catering from the beginning and after closing Abner’s Attic in the 1990s, he focused on catering weddings and other events, as well as meetings. Eventually he built a commercial kitchen in the basement of his home, then moved the business into the upper floors as well. Recently he and his wife moved into the downtown area and the business bought a commissary with 5,000 square feet of kitchen and office space.
Bradford has been with the company for about four years. He says early in his life he wanted to join the company, but eventually changed his mind, majoring in business at Clemson with an intention of working in the college sports field. After college he took a job managing a Chick-Fil-a and enjoyed it, but when confronted with the reality of moving around the country to progress in that career, he decided he really did want to work with his father.
His father initially said, “no,” because he wasn’t sure that’s what Bradford really wanted. After discussing it, he relinquished and he acknowledged that Bradford has provided a great infusion of vision and energy to the company. It’s a difficult life in that they work when others play, like nights and weekends, but the two obviously enjoy working together and building the business. By Bradford’s second full year they doubled their accounts, got on preferred lists for most venues in town and increased their staff to seven full time and fifty part-time employees.
They admire the legacy of Don and Karen’s business and see this as a wonderful opportunity to build upon that foundation. The market concept will remain, with an emphasis on healthy grab-and-go food. As Karen before them, they will prepare food from scratch and continue her focus on soups, sandwiches and salads. They plan to update some technology so they’ll have better information regarding what their customers really want.
They assured me that those familiar with the restaurants will recognize much of what they see on the new menu, though they have removed the hot bar in favor of a soup and salad bar. You’ll still find pumpkin muffins, tuna salad, pasta salad, egg salad and enchiladas, but you’ll also find three soups each day available for eating in or taking out. And it will all be freshly made from local vendors. They will also serve delicious Vienna Coffee.
They will also focus on downtown businesses, hoping to grow their corporate catering. With the commissary staffed and preparing food every day, they are able to cater events on very short notice and tailor a menu where requested. The Atrium location will continue to operate from 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM and the downtown location will be open 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM. You’ll still be able to buy lunch – either ala carte items or pre-boxed lunches for about $7 to $10.
The store opens this next Tuesday, February 16th, though a ribbon cutting ceremony is scheduled for the following day. When you arrive you will find a familiar face in Gary Tolliver who has worked downtown since 1988. Michelle Dunn who managed the Atrium location will also continue in her role. Stop by and welcome a downtown institution back home.