As Stir Fry Café celebrates its fifth anniversary this summer, Operating Partner Martin Bagwell sees a new burst of energy stirring downtown.
“When we opened downtown, it was like a big explosion [of development],” said Bagwell, 34. “We really hit a lull when the market crashed and the economy kind of took a nosedive, but I think we’re on the way back up. We’ve kind of weathered the storm.”
Bagwell said he now thinks of the American-Asian restaurant and bar as an anchor restaurant on Broad Street, where a friendly crowd of regular customers has helped keep the doors open through an economic downturn that left a lot of people reeling from job cutbacks and afraid to spend money.
“I have regulars who’ve been coming in here since the day we opened, three or four days a week,” he said. “That’s why we’re still in business: They’ve been very faithful. I think part of it’s because we have good people here and good staff.”
With the recent purchase of nearby Divine Café and Catering, the Stir Fry Group – the three-man partnership that owns Stir Fry Café and several other restaurants in the Tri-Cities – is looking to grow its catering business while continuing to entertain new opportunities.
Divine is a 6-year-old downtown Kingsport-based business. The group also operates trendy 620 State and the Foundation event venue in Bristol; the Stir Fry Café, 112 Downtown and Johnson City Catering Company in Johnson City; and the 620 Greenside restaurant at Glenrochie Country Club in Abingdon.
“The restaurant business is always changing; the new guy always has the upper hand,” Bagwell said. “So we try to be the most progressive, try to be ahead of the curve.”
The Stir Fry Café in Kingsport, whose building once housed a furniture store, has its roots in the very first Stir Fry Café, which was opened some 20 years ago in Knoxville by a Malaysian immigrant named Kenny Siao. In a classic American Dream story, Siao worked hard at various restaurants and eventually opened his own, growing it to a chain of five restaurants in East Tennessee.
Nine years ago, Siao brought the concept to Johnson City with a trendy Stir Fry Café. After his death, Knoxville investor Mark Rowan bought Siao’s restaurants and brought Rafael Zabala and then Bagwell on board as managers and, eventually, partners in the enterprise.
Five years ago, they opened Bagwell’s Kingsport location, which has evolved from strictly Asian to an eclectic American-Asian menu that varies from sushi to noodles to burgers. Last year, they opened Zabala’s trendy 620 State in Bristol. With the recent purchase of Divine in downtown Kingsport, Bagwell says they’re still on the lookout for opportunities.
“We never let an opportunity pass without taking a look at it,” he said. “I get calls all the time. It could be anything from a small restaurant to a piece of kitchen equipment; we look at everything.”
Bagwell, who lives in a downtown loft near Stir Fry and Divine, doesn’t know what their next venture will be. He envisions an upscale small-plate gourmet restaurant – though right now, their focus is on expanding the catering business.
Bagwell said the effort to remake once-booming downtown commercial centers is a trend that extends beyond the Tri-Cities and around the nation, as people seek the nostalgic grounding that these places represent.
“All our restaurants are in downtowns in the Tri-Cities,” he said. “That’s where we’re gearing all of our concepts because we feel like it just fits better. We’re more on the artsy side of things, and it seems like the downtowns are more about community than the Roan Streets and the Stone Drives and Volunteer Parkways of the world.”
With success in local industry, he said things are finally looking up economically in the Tri-Cities – and he feels the same kind of energy in the air again that he felt five years ago.
“The support for downtown is better than it’s ever been,” he said. “There’s a lot of new businesses opening up, and it seems like there’s a lot more energy downtown right now than there has been.”