Joey and Pete Natour, Pete's Coffee Shop, 540 Union Avenue, Knoxville, June 2021
I have seen Pete Natour, owner of Pete’s Coffee Shop at 540 Union Avenue, many times over the years as I came and went with takeout orders or sat for a meal. We always spoke but had never held a long conversation. To mark the 35th anniversary of the opening of the restaurant, we sat for that conversation. I think I asked one question and then listened as Pete spun his fascinating story with little more than clarification requests from me. I continue to be amazed at the fascinating stories that live and breathe in our downtown.
He was born in Ramallah, the West Bank in 1959, to a Catholic mother and a Greek Orthodox father, who sent him to a Catholic School. There he said, though Arabic was the primary language, he learned English, Arabic and French. He lived in Ramallah until war erupted in 1967 between the Palestinians and Israel. His father was living in the U.S. and his grandmother suggested his mother take Pete, his two brothers and sister and join their father in New York City.
“I was eight years old . . . it was pretty frightening. Our house that my father and grandfather built was pretty big.” He explained that new levels were built when the son got married and the houses grew over time. “There was a basement and that’s where we hid because our backyard had craters in it.”
They lived in New York for about six months. “Everybody wanted to leave. They went to South America, to Russia, to Australia, different places. Everybody felt like us: we were going to come back shortly afterwards.” They stayed with his mother’s parents who had moved four years earlier. The family then moved to Washington, D.C. where his grandfather on his father’s side had a job.
His father built a house in Arlington, Virginia, where the family spent six years. In 1972, one of his father’s cousins, George Harb, suggested as Pete’s family visited Knoxville, that they should move here. His father owned a restaurant in D.C. and Pete said, “We never saw my dad in Washington. He’d come home when we were asleep, and we’d wake up and he’d be gone.”
The family decided to move, and purchased the Copper Kettle restaurant on Oak Ridge Highway. Pete worked there and his uncle joined his father as a partner in the business. “That’s where I learn my restaurant trade. I was thirteen . . . I did everything. That’s where I learned basically about life: How to talk to people, meet people and the work ethic and how they work.”
He told his father he wanted to go to college and when pressed for what he wanted to learn there and do, he said, “I don’t know. Anything but the restaurant business.” He explained, “They were open from six in the morning ’til twelve at night seven days a week. It was a big operation with forty or fifty employees.”
He graduated from Central High School and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1981 with a degree in political science and international relations. He applied to law school, but had not become a citizen, and preference for admission was given to citizens. Meanwhile, his father learned of a kosher deli for sale in Deerfield Beach Florida and, after a family discussion, they purchased the restaurant and he and his brother moved to Florida to operate it.
They ran the business for a year while violence in nearby Liberty City was in the national news. The business was doing well, but his parents were concerned with the proximity to the violence. Since they had built up the business, they were able to find a buyer and make a nice profit before returning to Knoxville. His father and uncles had purchased a grocery store and he began working there.
He told his father he wanted to do something on his own. “I said, ‘I can’t be doing this. I’m going to get married and start a family. You guys are not paying me much.” He started looking for a job, but his dad suggested he take a trip to Ramallah intending to stay a month. “I think it was partly because his sister, who was living in Ramallah, had someone in mind for me.”
“I met Rita and we hit it off and I ended up staying five months. We got married in Jerusalem. We stayed longer because she only had her mother and her sister. I knew it was going to be hard for her to leave. I enjoyed being there . . . there was no intifada. You could still see Israeli soldiers walking around with machine guns, but they didn’t bother us, then.”
He was bothered by some parts of life there, however. He said going into Jerusalem, they had to present passports and the soldiers would act like they were going to keep them before throwing it back in the car. He had gotten his citizenship and had a U.S. passport, but it made no difference. He said he was the last person detained from his flight when he landed, and had to endure six hours of questions like, “Do you have a gun? Do you have any bombs? Did you make any bombs?” He adds, “It was a total disrespect for Palestinians no matter if you were a citizen.”
The couple returned to Knoxville, and he credits Rita with all the success and recognition they have gotten since. Pete applied to Calhouns, Chesapeake’s and other places and they told him he was too qualified. He started looking for a spot downtown, and found Lines Coffee Shop, owned by Michael Lines and his mother in the Sprankle Building on Union Avenue.
He spoke to the owner about buying and asked to work as employee to see what the business was like. He was told he could not because the owner did not want to “scare the employees.” He started a stake-out, parking across the street and watching for vendors as they came and went and asked the bread man, chip man, milk man and others about the business. He was told it was good, but could be better.
After a week, they agreed on a price and he renamed it “Pete’s Coffee Shop.” He pointed out that “coffee shop” meant something different than what it means now, it was a diner. He didn’t want a diner as such because he felt he would have to be open at night.
He remembers opening day because it was Rita’s birthday, May 21, 1986. The cook quit the first day, but two employees who worked with him at the beginning remained: Sheri Overton worked for Pete for thirty-five years (just retiring recently) and Becky Morris still works at the restaurant. A replacement cook worked with him for three weeks before breaking her arm. Rita reminded him he had worked a grill and suggested he do it again and let her work the register.
He said the food mattered to him from the beginning and working the grill made delivering the food they way he wanted it at home more within his control. He said he had a worker making and plating sandwiches, two waitresses and himself and Rita. They got to know the customers and he said he feels that made all the difference with the owners greeting people as they come in.
The business built each year and was going very well. Much of the customer base came from TVA workers, as well as Whittle Communications. In 1989 and 1990, when TVA announced a work force reduction of about 50%, sales were cut in half. He started doing breakfast prep himself to save money, arriving at 4:00 am in order to be ready to open by 6:00 am. He continued paying all his workers and told them this was the critical time to give good service.
They gradually began to rebuild, bringing in professors, lawyers and others. He said there were few residents, students or tourists. All was going well once more until around the year 2,000 when representatives of Home Federal informed him the building, which he describes as crumbling and flooding with every rain through the unoccupied floors above, would be demolished. They gave all the businesses a year to move out.
Pete located his current space, which had recently become available due to the construction of the Locust Street Garage. A mutual friend of his and Mayor Ashe helped expedite getting him the space. They gave him the full space, which had been intended for three retail spaces and included a space for storage inside the garage.
“We ended up leaving there (the old location) on a Friday, August 31, 2,002 and opening up on Monday at the new location. The first day we were slammed.” He said he’s never done much marketing, “I wasn’t into that. I was into hard work and trying to make a living for my family, providing good food, good service, at reasonable costs. Consistency, courtesy and cleanliness was my thing.”
He said business has only gotten better since. Residents began moving downtown and now they see a lot of tourists and families. At some point celebrities began finding their way to the restaurant. He remembers Chris Whittle bringing in a secretary of state, though he wasn’t sure which one. Bill Haslam called up one day to ask if he could announce his campaign there. Henry Winkler and Kiefer Sutherland were remembered fondly.
Harrison Ford made an appearance. Al Borland (“Al” from Home Improvement) dropped in and Alan Jackson filmed glimpses of Pete’s (including Pete singing the title), in 1994 (video below). He said the celebrities cause more disruption than anything, but they have brought positive attention to the restaurant. He confessed he did not know who Alan Jackson was until it was explained to him.
As we come out of the pandemic, they said shifting to take-out only, virtually overnight was hard, but they adapted quickly, and both said they enjoyed having just the family together making food every day.” They doubled projections. They paid their employees to stay home for during the lockdown. They reopened in May with full hours, but at half capacity. They closed only on July 4. To-go was still most of the business for a while.
Pete said many long-time customers continued to get carry-out or make large orders for their offices. “There’s some really good people out there . . . and I felt that. They wanted to help as much as possible.”
Pete said his father told him shortly before his death that he should enjoy his life more and not to always work so hard like he had done. Pete admits he hasn’t done so much better, but like the generations before him, has tried to make an easier life for his children.
At the same time, he wanted them to understand the value of money and had them working at the restaurant when they were nine years old, setting tables, washing a few plates, picking up plates off the table. Joey has joined him in the business, while his brother Sami is a system’s analyst and part owner of Pour Tap Room. Cameron, his youngest, just graduated from the University of Tennessee and works there on weekends.
He said there are times, such as when an employee does not show up, that he questions what he is doing, but for the most part he said he would not change a thing. He is proud of what they have built through hard work and anticipates Joey continuing it after he steps away from the grill for the last time.
Joey said, “It takes a lot of courage to adapt, but I think it takes even more courage to stay the same while everything changes around you. We’ve adapted our menu.” He says while they tried to accommodate a greater range of tastes, but “At the same time, it’s just simple food and we do it right and don’t cut corners and I think that’s what’s keeping this place going.”
Pete concluded, “We have our own identity. We’re a mom-and-pop coffee shop. We never competed with any other restaurant downtown. We work together.”