The Humble Hog to Open Soon on Gay Street

The Humble Hog, 312 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2024
The Humble Hog, 312 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2024

As, it seems with every opening, a long, sometimes torturous path finally has led toward the opening of The Humble Hog at 312 South Gay Street (next to Chivo in the Century Building). Over two years ago the move was set in motion. Only a bit less than two years ago the location was secured and over a year ago KnoxNews ran a story touting its advent. Owner/Operator Ben Grice said in the midst of his impatience he’d gotten good, applicable advice from Allan Benton (of Benton’s Bacon) who said, “Ben, you need to work on your mosey.”

He first secured a location above Stefanos on the strip in the location of the old Ruby Tuesday restaurant where he’d planned a great rooftop. Then large developers started purchasing the property around him (including what he’d hoped would be his parking lot) and the location became impossible. All he has left of that location is a cool checkerboard bar-top you’ll find in the new restaurant fronting windows (found in the basement) facing into the kitchen. The current location became available the same day he gave up the fight and he took it immediately, getting the keys in May 2022.

The design went through a range of plans. The walk-in cooler, originally planned for outside, had to be moved inside. The large, intricate ventilation system (installed by Chancey Reynolds) for the two very large, wood fired smokers presented its own set of issues, boring through three feet of brick. The insertion of the cooler made for a cozy back room like the one found next door.  It features the original back windows. The building flooded last winter after they painted the ceiling, causing another setback.

Ben has worked as a chef for twenty-five years. In 2014 he opened a previous restaurant, a bakery, called The Humble Hog in Illinois. He also worked at the time as the administrator of the chefs at the University of Illinois and operated a space for catering. Even though his background was in fine dining in places like Italy, Boston, and Phoenix, he had been entering barbeque competitions and decided the space and location fit better with barbeque.

Eventually, he admitted to himself that what he loved was cooking with wood and he left the other ventures. “I like the challenge of it, making it easy going, and seeing what we could do. It took off. The first year we were on NPR as one of the top three barbeque places in Illinois. We had to grow the staff, expand the hours, expand the menu.” He gave the business his entire attention. He made expansion plans for the region, but for a range of reasons that didn’t work out. “I kept looking at various places and they just didn’t fit.”

The Humble Hog, 312 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2024

Meanwhile, his eye turned to Knoxville. “My wife’s family is from here. We’d been coming here forever.” He’d joked with her whenever they would come here that he didn’t want to go home. He noticed how many restaurants were locally owned and well supported. “I always wanted to be a part of a community like that, and I had it when I was in Boston.” He said his wife, Sadie, who is a teacher at A.L. Lotts, has been extremely supportive through it all and they are happy to be here. His children attend A.L. Lotts and West Valley.

Eventually, the couple got serious and began making plans. They felt it would be a good place to raise their children. “Families show up at breweries, to church, to the mall . . . Go to other, bigger cities and you don’t see that. Boston? You don’t see kids playing in the street.” He also fell in love with the natural beauty of the area, saying that is something he always looks for given that he was born in beautiful Alaska. He loved hiking and flyfishing here. He closed the business in Illinois, retaining the brand, and they moved here in 2020.

The restaurant will be a barbeque restaurant, but he’s looking to make it fit with the area and plans to offer a range of food options. He points out that trout can be smoked, as well as vegetables. He plans to have a comfortable spot for a range of tastes and will adapt to demand. “What if we want to smoke lobster? What about potatoes? We’re on Gay Street. How do we enhance the community? . . . I feel like this is a great spot that I want to run for a long time. I don’t want this to be a blueprint for cookie-cutter knockoffs and do ten more. I want this.” He wants it to be nice enough for date-night and casual enough to come watch the game.

He plans to support as much local as possible, ” . . . beer included, we’re not doing any national brands. I look at the food the same way. Whatever we’re doing, let’s do it with excellence.” To that end, we sampled delicious house-made pretzels as we talked, even though he pointed out no one would expect that. “It’s not the Ben Show. We’ve got a really well-rounded team.” He’s also looking to buy local and regional liquors and food, as much as is possible. “Our vibe is homemade. Made with love.”

Mason Crockett sat with us, and Ben called him “my right-hand man.” Mason was with Archer’s for a dozen years (from the beginning), including working downtown at the location here. He said, “I was the manager of the Gay Street Archer’s and definitely happier down here. That’s when I fell in love with being on Gay Street. It’s its own community and everybody knows each other, helps each other out, and I’ve missed it since then.”

In the end, he points out that he might not have ended up with the right team if it had happened earlier and it gave him time to pursue a range of ideas. Brandon Young will be managing the kitchen. He operated a butcher shop in Columbus Georgia but had previously worked at Blackberry Farm. He said he’s happy to get back to the area. He moved up in October and the crew working making the table tops and did the herringbone design from old barnwood he purchased on the bar. The wood also forms a dramatic feature in the center of the restaurant.

Megan Muzzy will be the bar manager. James Reall is also part of the management staff. Local architects oysk3 (who also designed KEFI), with lead architect Steve Young. Pannell Construction served as general contractors. The current plan is to have soft openings early in February and open as soon as they feel they are ready afterward. In the meantime, walk by and check out the very cool copper lettering they made to spell their name on the front and watch their website and Instagram  for updates.

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