Tombras Cafe Opens on Gay Street

Tombras Cafe, 620 South Gay Street, Knoxville, October 2018

On First Friday earlier this month, as I walked past the Tombras Building at the corner of Gay and Church, I noticed the originally planned, but long-in-coming cafe had been installed in the corner of the building and is now open to the public. With large (10 foot), attractive windows and tempting window seating, it stopped me on the sidewalk. Food Services Manager Donnie McClannahan visibly chuckled and willingly opened the door to our party.

Serving us up a cup of delicious espresso was the most direct way to my heart he could have chosen. Good wine or good coffee and you’ve got me. He intrigued me by saying he, by agreement, could not give details about the coffee. We agreed to meet again to discuss the cafe and to see if I might get a little more information about that coffee.

When we met again, he was a little less coy, saying it is a blend from Columbia, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Tanzania and Ethiopia. He likes blends, he confessed, saying he feels they have the opportunity to be rich while retaining a smoothness. Like with everything else in the restaurant, he says he is trying to eliminate variability in the culinary experience. He’s going for a good cup of coffee every time, not trying to hit a home run with one and striking out with the next.

He works for Roddy Vending, a local company, and also serves as the manager of the Order Up Cafe in the First Tennessee Plaza and the Riverview Cafe in the Riverview Tower. Those businesses have started serving large volumes out-the-gate and in the case of one of them, he didn’t even have a sign up initially.

Tombras Cafe, 620 South Gay Street, Knoxville, October 2018

Donnie’s background is in Hospitality, which was his major at Walter’s State. He describes himself as a “food service manager who enjoys cooking.” He says he has control of the menu in each spot, including the new one and that the customers in each location are a bit different, even though they are located within a couple of blocks. The clientele in the Tombras building is more health conscious, for example, so the menu makes allowances for that.

He gets excited when the topic turns to the food. He tries to make as much from scratch as possible, though some commercially produced foods are served. He rattles off dishes he enjoys making from scratch for the restaurants: macaroni salad, chicken casserole, turkey breasts for the sandwiches are soaked in brine for twenty-four hours before baking, he’s proud of his lasagna and meatloaf he makes from scratch.

He plans to have quesadillas, loaded baked potatoes, white chicken chili, chili pies, chicken and dumplings and chicken pot pies with hand-pulled chicken. And he uses lots of thick-cut applewood smoked bacon. OK, so some of that might not rank high on the heart-healthy scale.

The menu is, however, wide-ranging and a healthy lunch may be found. Fresh fruit sides, wraps and a wide range of house-made salads are available, as well as classic and artisan sandwiches. He says much of his customer base isn’t the lawyers and executives people think of in the office buildings, but the people who work for them. Given that, he’s aware that cost matters and he tries to offer the best food at a modest price that he is able to produce. An entree, drink and a side may be had for under $10.

The breakfast menu, which wasn’t posted when I visited, will include a wide range of breakfast options, including a breakfast platter with pick two, three or four item options. Breakfast sandwiches, wraps and omlettes will be offered. All eggs are prepared fresh, turkey ham and salami are sliced fresh and he loves to liberally apply avocado to his dishes. The breads are fresh made locally by Quality Bakers and includes sour dough, wheat berry, marble rye and croissants.

Tombras Cafe, 620 South Gay Street, Knoxville, October 2018

The group also does catering and vending and was operating the vending in the building before the offer came to manage the restaurant. The design was slow coming because the Tombras company wanted it to be perfect. Designed by Sanders Pace and constructed by Johnson and Galyon, you’ll notice the same color schemes and clean lines found elsewhere in the building’s design. Materials included quartz countertops, cherry wood and metal panels.

More changes are coming. Graphics will soon adorn the windows and interior and online ordering using a food delivery service is planned. Saturday hours are a future possibility and wifi is on the way. Hours are currently 7:00 AM to 4:00 PM, serving breakfast and lunch.

Donnie sums up his commitment to his customers, “I sell food for a living. It’s what I do. It has to taste good and the answer is always, ‘yes,’ to anything a customer requests.”

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