KINGSPORT - Just a few years ago, restaurant choices in downtown Kingsport were fairly limited.
Several new restaurants have opened in the heart of the city in the past year, joining some eateries that have operated downtown for decades, and others that have served customers for just a few years.
Today, about 20 restaurants are serving up everything from ethnic specialties to classic American fare in the downtown district.
Lisa Childress, executive director of the Downtown Kingsport Association, said a growing restaurant sector is a sign of a strong downtown.
"Restaurants are the leading traffic generators for downtowns, and they are common in successful downtowns," Childress said.
"People are wanting to come downtown. People are wanting to live downtown. I think we've got something that's really special."
Several new restaurants have opened just within the last few weeks, including Kaffe Blue, Divine Delicacies, Trackside Deli, and Breaking Tradition.
At Kaffe Blue, owner Lisa Allen said she didn't expect the overwhelming response when she opened the doors March 3. The eatery is located at 210 Broad St.
"We wanted to have a soft opening for the first month or two, but that didn't happen. Everybody came at once," Allen said.
As many as 90 people an hour came through the restaurant - more patrons than Allen had anticipated. The business specializes in gourmet sandwiches and salads. But its equipment only steamed one sandwich at a time - not nearly enough to keep up with demand.
Allen said she's already ordered more equipment to make more sandwiches simultaneously.
"We're glad everybody loves it. I just want people to understand that we have to get the kinks worked out before it's going to be perfect," Allen said.
The business serves lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Breakfast bagels and pastries are available beginning at 7 a.m. weekdays.
Allen said she hopes to eventually offer Belgian waffles for the morning crowd after she gets the lunch kinks worked out.
Across the street, Melinda Hite was busy in the kitchen at Divine Delicacies, preparing food for the upcoming lunch crowd. Hite and her business partner, Karen Allen, opened the restaurant in January.
"We love the ambience of downtown and felt like it needed a bakery and cafe and an alternative to fast food," Hite said.
The restaurant serves home-cooked cuisine including French dip and reuben sandwiches, chicken parmesan, chicken salad, pimento cheese, and more. The bakery offers homemade pies, cakes, cream puffs, brownies, cookies, and cheesecake.
Divine Delicacies is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. The restaurant is located in the Progress Building at 247 Broad St. The restored 1929 structure features original maple floors and exposed brick walls.
"We just love it. You can't beat that charm," Hite said.
That charm is a big attraction for many businesses in the downtown district.
Mayor Dennis Phillips said many people are recognizing the value of older structures, and are investing money to revitalize the old downtown buildings. Not only are property owners renovating storefronts - they're also converting the upper floors into loft apartments.
"I was talking to one of the people building the apartments today because I knew someone that wanted an apartment, and they said everything they've got is committed for. That's where the activity is now," Phillips said.
Redevelopment projects such as the renovation of the old State Theater are sparking interest in the downtown.
Another draw is the summer concert series, which brings hundreds of people into the downtown area each Thursday and Friday evening in the spring and summer.
And if it gets the go-ahead, the proposed higher education center would also help generate traffic in the downtown district.
Aundrea Wilcox, executive director of the Kingsport Office of Small Business Development & Entrepreneurship, said all the activity in downtown can only benefit restaurants and businesses in the vicinity.
"I think entrepreneurs and investors are finally realizing the tremendous opportunity for small business in downtown Kingsport," Wilcox said.
She said downtown has a captive audience during the week - especially with more than 700 city employees coming and going during the day.
"During the daytime, our population is up more than 30 percent," Wilcox said.
Trackside Deli is hoping to capture some of that market. The eatery recently opened in the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce building, and features Max Max coffee and a large selection of fresh fruit smoothies, plus specialty sandwiches and wraps. It also offers breakfast items and snacks, and is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Another new restaurant is Breaking Tradition, which opened three weeks ago in the former Anderson Furniture building at 235 E. Market St.
Vicki Greenwalt started the upscale billiards restaurant with her husband Gary after they moved here from Florida. The restaurant serves soups, salads, sandwiches and appetizers, and is open from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and from noon to midnight Sunday.
Creekside - A Greenbelt Eatery is another new restaurant in downtown, at 815 W. Center St. Owned by Judy Burmer, the restaurant offers daily specials prepared from scratch. Sandwiches and subs are also on the menu, as well as salads, soup, chili and pinto beans and cornbread. Sides include sweet potato fries, baked potato salad, stewed tomatoes, corn and green beans. Extras include a pepperoni roll, Frito pie, battered jalapeno peppers and onions, and grilled applesauce.
Creekside is open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.
The Rose Cottage Bakery opened in December at 113 W. Market St. Owned by Claudia St. John, the bakery serves various homemade delicacies, such as brownies, coffee cake, pound cake, yellow cake with caramel icing, angel food cake, pies, Danish pastries, cookies, and signature cinnamon rolls.
The Rose Cottage Bakery is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Some restaurants have withstood the test of time in downtown. The oldest continually operated eatery in the heart of the city is the Jan Mar, at 114 Broad St. The restaurant opened in 1953, serving traditional American fare.
Today, owner Bill Greene said downtown has been good to the business, except during the 1970s, when stores closed up shop and moved to the newly built malls.
"My mom and dad were the owners. It was trying times then but they kept it open," Greene said.
He said it's good to see new businesses opening again in downtown. But, he said, city leaders need to consider parking issues as downtown continues to grow.
Another business that's served customers in the downtown area for many years is Pal's, at 327 Revere St. The restaurant opened in 1956, and has since expanded with eateries throughout the region. The Revere Street location is open from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Sharon's Barbecue & Burgers has operated at 301 W. Center St. since 1984. The business is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. everyday.
Home Sweet Home at 122 Broad St. opened in 1995 as Kingsport's first tea room. Owner Sharon Hurd had operated a gift shop on Market Street for eight years, and then moved to Broad Street to open the restaurant 12 years ago. The tea room serves quiches, sandwiches, soups, desserts and specialty teas, and is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.
"I never thought about going anywhere else. This is where I was born, and to me, downtown is the place to be," Hurd said.
The Court Yard opened at 201 E. New St. in April 2000. Owner Kathy Gilliam serves up sandwiches, hoagies, wraps, quiches, casseroles, salads, and soups - and always includes her signature potato soup on the menu.
"The first year I was in business, I took it off my menu in the summer, and I had somebody drive all the way from Knoxville to get it," Gilliam said. "After that, it never went off my menu again."
The Court Yard also features bakery specialties such as cakes, cookies and cream puffs. The business hosts parties, bridal showers, and various events.
The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Gilliam said she hopes to eventually open for dinner once more people move downtown. She and her husband live in a loft apartment overlooking Center Street.
"It is so pretty down here in the evenings," Gilliam said. "If people just knew how nice it was down here I think they'd just move on down."
Tom Keller appreciates downtown in the evening. The owner of TK's Big Dogs started his business on a hot dog cart on Broad Street, then moved to a permanent location at 160 Broad St. in December 2003. Keller serves lunch from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Five weeks after opening, Keller started hosting "jammin'" sessions, which eventually developed into outdoor concerts. Those events led to the city's downtown summer concert series. This year, the summer concerts will start again in the spring. In the meantime, Keller hosts sessions each Friday night starting at 7 p.m.
Pacific Grill opened at 453 E. Main St. in April 2005. The business serves upscale cuisine, and is open from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and again from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday. On Saturday, the Pacific Grill serves dinner from 5 to 10 p.m.
Aladdin's Cuisine & Broadway CafÃ© is located at 246 Broad St., serving traditional Mediterranean, Persian and American food. The business also features belly dancing. A lunch buffet is offered from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and dinner is served from 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
Chef's Pizza operates at 254 W. New St., serving pizza, sandwiches, salad bar and potato bar. The business is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Kathy's Old Time CafÃ© is located at 245 E. Market St., in the former Katty's Korner building. The restaurant serves traditional American fare, and is open from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The Happy Hostess has operated at 221 E. Center St. since 1981. The business serves American fare with daily specials, and is open from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Funtastics is another long-time restaurant in downtown Kingsport. The business is located at 541 W. Sullivan St., and serves American fare such as hamburgers, hot dogs and milkshakes. It's open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
The Hot Dog Hut is located at 1025 E. Sullivan St. The business is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
And several restaurants are located within a stone's throw of downtown Kingsport. They include Pizza Plus at 400 Lynn Garden Drive, Chuck's Drive-In on Industry Drive, Riverfront Seafood on Netherland Inn Road, and Hana Japanese Restaurant, which opened in December at 1001 E. Center St. Hana specializes in Japanese cuisine such as miso soup and sushi rolls, and is open from 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Wilcox said differentiation is the key for new restaurants. She suggested that restaurants be creative and work to enhance the customer experience.
"Every business cannot be all things to all people, and they shouldn't try to be," Wilcox said. "They should ask themselves, ‘What do I want to be known for?' And work towards that."