KINGSPORT — It’s lunchtime in downtown Kingsport and folks are lining up at one of the newest restaurants in the city. They come for the smoked barbecue, chicken and turkey.
And the sides — everything from jalapeÃ±o cheese grits and cucumber salad to collard greens and corn pudding.
And now, patrons can say they come to sample the tastiest fare in America.
12 Bones, an Asheville, N.C.-based restaurant that recently opened its first franchised location in Kingsport, has taken top honors in the “Best Bites Challenge” on ABC’s Good Morning America.
Doug Beatty knew the food was a winner when he first tasted it in Asheville.
“It was all soul Southern food,” Beatty said. “I told my wife — ‘That’s exactly what I want to do.’”
Beatty and his business partner, Jeff Lane, opened 12 Bones Smokehouse Sept. 25 at 242 E. Main Street, across from the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce in downtown Kingsport.
The restaurant specializes in ribs smoked over cherry and/or oak wood chips and basted in a variety of sauces, such as blueberry chipotle, pineapple habanero, apple chow chow, Memphis-style and 12 Bones’ signature brown sugar sauce.
The restaurant also features fresh pulled pork and chicken, sliced brisket, smoked turkey, and BLT sandwiches with smoked brown sugar bacon and fried green tomatoes.
A dozen sides are on the menu, along with huge salads, and meat sold by the pound.
“This is definitely a place that you should try out,” Lane said.
Investing in Kingsport
Beatty and Lane met several years ago when Lane worked as director of operations for Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria, a restaurant chain founded by Beatty with locations in Asheville, Knoxville and Greenville, S.C.
In Asheville, Beatty was interested in downtown revitalization, and launched that city’s “Brewgrass Festival,” which drew brewers from across the nation. Beatty hired 12 Bones to cater a meal for the brewers and the restaurant got rave reviews.
“Brewers from all over the country — they just raved about how good this food is,” Beatty said.
Two weeks later, the owners of 12 Bones contacted Beatty, asking him for consulting advice to help grow their restaurant business. Beatty had just franchised one of his restaurants, and thought the concept would work for 12 Bones, too.
“I said, ‘You can license somebody to operate one of your locations and send you a check every month. And I’ll be your first customer,’ ” Beatty said.
Meanwhile Lane, a native of Kingsport, had returned to his hometown and was working in the real estate business. He paired up again with Beatty, and the two decided to open the 12 Bones franchised restaurant in Kingsport.
Lane had actually brought Beatty here a few years earlier about the possibility of hosting some concerts downtown.
“I came and looked and the atmosphere, the political climate — I just couldn’t see it happening yet,” Beatty said.
But on his visit then, he took notice of the old State Theater on Broad Street. “And I said to everybody in the group — ‘You all want your downtown to get going, somebody needs to fix up that theater. That’s a pretty cool piece.’ And then I left,” Beatty said.
Two years later, Beatty got a call from Lane, who said the owner of the State Theater was willing to sell. Beatty purchased the building and started renovations. Then he hit gold — uncovering the original blueprints for the theater.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It turns out the State Theater is not just a movie theater — it’s a small palace, much like the Fox in Atlanta or the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville. It was done up like a Mediterranean garden.”
The theater’s stage was covered in a 1950s-era renovation when the cinema-scope projector was invented.
Today, Beatty is restoring the theater to its original grandeur, and once completed next summer, the facility will be able to host various kinds of events, such as live concerts, plays and motion picture movies.
Beatty is hoping the State Theater will draw hundreds of people to downtown Kingsport every night of the week. And those folks will be looking for places to eat.
“The State will have about 550 seats. If you’re successful, you’re putting 400 to 500 people downtown every night on Broad Street,” Beatty said.
“There’s not any restaurant that can hold all of that. So you’re looking at 8, 9, 10 more restaurants opening up to accommodate just what’s happening at the State,” he said.
Beatty and Lane are also investing in and renovating apartment lofts in the downtown district. And the two partners have been involved in the management of the Twilight Alive Summer Concert Series on Broad Street.
Meanwhile, Beatty recently moved from North Carolina to Abingdon to get closer to his investments in Kingsport. Asked why he didn’t move to Kingsport, Beatty said “I couldn’t find a 165-acre farm.”
Back to barbecue
Lane and Beatty relaxed at 12 Bones on a recent weekday morning as employees started preparing food for the upcoming lunch crowd.
“In my mind, I think anybody can do meat decently. It’s the sides that are just awful,” Beatty said. “It’s baked beans from a can, French fries and cole slaw from a tub. Yuck. I don’t think that’s food.”
He said 12 Bones’ unique sides, paired with its smoked meats, hit the spot.
Apparently, the restaurant’s patrons agree. Today, 12 Bones is on track to exceed expectations for its first year in Kingsport, Beatty said.
And getting recognition for the food on national television helps. Lane said he was thrilled when 12 Bones won the Good Morning America “Best Bites” award. The TV program had asked viewers to nominate their favorite restaurants. 12 Bones was one of four eateries across the nation that garnered the most nominations. Good Morning America then judged the top four, choosing 12 Bones as its No. 1 pick.
“It hit us by surprise,” Lane said. “We were floored — and thrilled.”
He and Beatty said they’d like to eventually expand the restaurant. They could renovate the second floor of the building for additional seating and create an area for private gatherings. They’ve also been in contact with the owner of the adjacent storage building about future growth opportunities there.
But Beatty said he has no timeline for the restaurant’s growth.
“I’ve got the State Theater to get finished,” he said.
And he indicated he’s got other projects on the drawing table in Kingsport.
“Somebody asked, ‘Well after this, is it on to the next town?’ I said no. I’m 46 years old. I have a seven-year-old kid. I’ve got a 165-acre farm. It took Asheville 20 years to get where it is now. So you add 20 years to this town to get it finished, I’ll be 66 by then. That’s it,” Beatty said.
Originally from the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia, Beatty said he’s been involved in the revitalization of five city downtowns, “and I’ve never seen a town pick up momentum so fast as Kingsport.
“That’s why we’re investing so much here,” he said.
“We’ve been offered opportunities in Johnson City, we’ve been offered opportunities in Bristol, but we’re consistently buying and investing here because you’ve got a BMA (Board of Mayor & Aldermen) that’s behind it 100 percent, you’ve got a chamber that works tirelessly to make things happen, and then you’ve got a population that literally walks up to us and thanks us.”
He said he was talking to a tour group in downtown the other day, telling the group about his plans for the State Theater.
“Afterwards some folks came into the theater and said ‘Thanks for what you’re doing for our downtown.’ That’s better than a paycheck,” Beatty said.
He said that projects downtown, from new restaurants to the State Theater to live concert performances, will help attract more folks to the heart of the city.
In the meantime, Kingsport still retains its traditional family values, which sometimes seem lacking in many larger cities.
“And people want that. They’re looking for the traditional values that you find in a hometown that you don’t get in those big cities. And that’s what Kingsport really offers,” Beatty said.
Lane predicted the downtown revitalization won’t stop any time soon.
“Downtown is alive,” he said. “Keep your eyes open and your ears open because downtown is going to surprise everyone. It’s crazy how much good stuff is happening right now.”
For more information, carry out orders, or catering, call (423) 239-7225.