Serving up a renaissance

Tomato Head, Dandy Lions and Toogies usher in next step in downtown revitalization

Photo with no caption
By Lance Coleman
Blount Today

A representative of the past was having lunch at the present and future on Monday, and he was getting a side dish of gentle ribbing.

Mike Owens, on hand for the opening of Tomato Head in the building he still owns, had to laugh as former patrons of the Soup Kitchen kept asking him for soup.

"I’m seeing a lot of old customers in here teasing me, asking for soup," he said.

Owens pointed with pride to the new surroundings, saying the décor and menu were very unique and eclectic. "It makes me
feel bad for what I didn’t do," he said. "They’re wonderful."

"They" are husband and wife team Scott Partin and Mahasti Vafaie, owners of Tomato Head, and Tomato Head general manager Tommy Bateman. As the new restaurant opened on Monday in downtown Maryville, downtown-watchers saw more than a place to enjoy a smoked turkey, red onion and spinach pizza.

With the opening of Tomato Head, downtown Maryville takes another step toward its revitalization. And even as the doors of Tomato Head open, there’s a little hammering, a lot of sanding and some careful planning going on nearby that will soon add other dimensions to downtown.

Continuing in the restaurant venue, Diane and Gary Fisher, Will Begg and Rick McCarty have friends and acquaintances helping build a bar and put in bathrooms down Broadway at the site of the former Gift Garden and Café. Joy Carver and Kriston Wilson are adding something new to the landscape as they work at the historic Harper building that once was home to the Blount County Library and, more recently, the Blount County chapter of the American Red Cross. Randy Burleson, owner of the Aubrey’s family of restaurants, is looking down the road to 2008 to open a Sunspot or Barley’s Tap Room in

At the Maryville Municipal Building, city manager Greg McClain said having another restaurant attracts more people to downtown and praised the investment Maryville City Council has made in the downtown vision.

"The real true story is city council has made a commitment to invest a lot of money in downtown," McClain said. "There’s been a tremendous investment over the last five years in downtown, and you might even say eight years when they straightened Broadway. It has brought increased improvement to a vibrant downtown."

McClain said he was happy to see Tomato Head open its doors, adding that, in the past two or three weeks, 15 to 20 people have asked him about Tomato Head. "They can’t wait until it is open. What’s great about having restaurants downtown is it does pull people into the core," he said.

Roger Young, senior vice president with First Tennessee Bank and Maryville Downtown Association president, was optimistic about the new restaurant opening. "This basically reinforces the downtown area as far as revitalizing and providing
economic development to the downtown area and Blount County," he said.

A gift shop
Joy Carver and Kriston Wilson were "walking" partners who are now business partners. In March, Carver shared her life-long dream of opening a gift and stationary shop with Wilson as they walked. Their husbands encouraged them to go for it, and they started looking for a store front.

At the end of June, Carver and Wilson plan to open the doors to Dandy Lions Gifts.

"Step one was, we couldn’t jut put this anywhere," said Carver. "It had to be special. The (old) library just fell in place. All cylinders are clicking."

Carver said the philosophy behind the business is influenced by their belief that both partners are service providers. "We wanted to do this not as a business but a service. We want to be the place where Maryville comes to celebrate milestones," she said. "There’s something for everyone and every price range."

Carver said the business will have wireless Internet access for brides who want to bring their laptop computers in to work on wedding plans. The pair also plan on having an "Everyday Registry."

"Someone could walk in and do a checklist of things they like," said Carver. "Then their husband or boyfriend can come in and say, ‘I need to get my wife a gift,’ and we can offer them a list of things she liked."

As they work in the building, Wilson said they’ve enjoyed seeing people celebrate and share the history of the building with them. "We’re having fun with people coming in to see the old library restored," she said.

Carver said she hopes the business becomes a cornerstone of the redevelopment in that section of downtown. "This was the heart of it downtown, and we’re going to bring the heart back," she said.

Former Maryville mayor Steve West owns the Harper Building where Dandy Lions is located. Dandy Lions is taking the space upstairs, and West still has the downstairs portion with roughly 2,000 square feet, complete with outside entrances and parking. "If this store is as successful as we think it will be, I hope other people will utilize other buildings, and it will be a place where you can shop and dine, and we’ll be a more viable downtown," he said.

McClain said the entire block on Church is being discussed.

"There’s an effort right now to look at the entire Church Street block where Maryville Furniture is and the doctor’s building that we own. CBBC owns a lot there, too. We’re discussing with all the owners that block in total and looking at a master plan of what it could be. Steve’s building is obviously the centerpiece. We hope to interest retail, office and residential, hopefully."

"We are excited," Wilson said. "We think we’re coming in at the perfect time when everything is going on. We can start a new trend."

Dandy Lions already has a website up and running. Anyone interested in watching the refurbishing can do so by clicking on

Wilson said the first day of business will be June 30. The store will be open Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. In addition to Wilson and Carver, the store should employee two or three others on a part time basis, according to the owners.

Music, more at Toogies
While some people in Blount County spent Saturday at area clubs or bars listening to music or watching the Kentucky Derby, Diane Fisher, her husband Gary Fisher, Will Begg and Rick McCarty were busy building a club.

The four, along with other volunteers, are renovating the building where Gift Garden and Café operated, and they plan to open a restaurant and club called Toogies soon.

The establishment’s name came from co-owner Diane Fisher’s past. Toogie was her nickname as a child.

McCarty said he and Begg started out helping Fisher and another realtor when they bought the Gift Garden building.

Eventually, Fisher’s partner backed out of the deal and Fisher recruited McCarty and Begg, who are both also musicians.

"Through the evolution of this building process, we became partners," McCarty said. "I said this is what we need to do when we retire, own a place like this. That’s when it transpired into a partnership."

Begg said they hope to open by the middle of June. They are doing much of the work themselves. They are contracting out the plumbing but have done the electrical work on their own. "It should start to come together quickly now that the basic stuff is done like framing and dry wall," he said.

McCarty said his biggest concern is getting a good start with the right staff and the proper procedures. The building has 11,000 square feet of space, and they hope to initially utilize 4,000 square feet of the first floor.

Fisher said she often sat at Gift Garden and Café and thought about it as a music venue. "I always thought it would be a great place to play music," she said.

In other places where her husband played, she saw that often the facilities weren’t designed for acoustics. She said she tried to build Toogies around the stage. "No one took the forethought to build around the music," she said of other clubs.

The first floor of Toogies has a large stage area with room for storage so different visiting bands won’t have to put their equipment containers on stage in front of the public.

A long bar is being built just inside the front doors to the left where the gift shop portion of the Gift Garden was. Past the kitchen is an area on the back wall where McCarty said they hope to grow and create a hallway leading to a deck on the back of the building facing Church Street.

The kitchen has been expanded and seating will be available in that area also. On the second floor is about 1,500 square feet of space. The partners hope to put a game room on the second floor, but McCarty said, "This is a work in progress."

Begg said the club would feature rock, blues and a disc jockey. "We’re talking about an open mic night, too, possibly on Sundays. So many musicians with day jobs can’t get up on stage at 12 or 1 in the morning," he said.

Fisher thanked her friend Mark Brackins at Brackins’ Blues Club for advice in opening their club. She also thanked volunteers such as Wade and Teresa West, Jeff Breazeale, Tina McCarty, Jeff and Metry Hutchison, Doug Harris, Melissa Jenkins, Madelaine Fisher, Tiffany and Danielle McCarty.

Something by Aubrey’s
The owner of Aubrey’s family of restaurants, Randy Burleson, who has talked with city officials previously about building a Sunspot in downtown Maryville, says he is still interested in Blount County.

"We are still very excited by downtown Maryville," he said, "And, we’ve been blessed by Blount County with the response to Aubrey’s. For right now, however, we are taking it slow because of other commitments, while still keeping a close eye on all the exciting things happening in downtown Maryville."

McClain and Burleson have talked previously about locating a Sunspot on Broadway, in front of the new parking garage.

"We began this process with Randy before the parking deck was built, and he wanted to do something then," McClain said. "My understanding is he’s still interested. He’s talked with us on a number of occasions the last couple of months.

We’re working out plans with solid waste and as far where dumpsters are placed. My understanding is Sunspot is still coming."

Burleson said he has been busy with the construction of a new Aubrey’s at Cedar Bluff Road and Middlebrook Pike in West Knoxville. "I’m not a wealthy man," he said. "It takes a lot of money, so I have to do restaurants one-at-a-time. I’m happy that Tomato Head has made an investment in downtown Maryville. Scott and Mahasti are great people. It will be great to see another success and to see if there is enough staff and resources available for all that is going on in Maryville. We are certainly still looking at either a Sunspot or a Barley’s Tap Room concept, either of which would fit well with the downtown development."

Back at Tomato Head
Tomato Head general manager Tommy Bateman said the first day went well. "There were a lot of happy customers," he said. "We saw a lot of people who had been regulars at Market Square, who either came down or moved here and came because they were excited."

Bateman said right now he’s focusing on lunch and getting staff hired and trained to the point where they can handle also serving dinner well. "We’re taking our time and focusing our energies on doing it right as opposed to doing it quickly. We hope to make a good impression," he said.

Bateman said Tomato Head has a good reputation throughout the region, so he hopes the restaurant makes a good impression on Maryville residents. "We want them to come by and be wowed," he said. "That’s our goal."

As the early lunchtime crowd enjoyed their food on Monday, several talked about the new restaurant’s impact on downtown.

Lynn Cox said he liked the restaurant. "It’s a nice pizza place for downtown, and it is a healthy alternative," he said. "It’s very roomy. I think it’s a good addition to downtown."

Catherine OBrion said she loved the Maryville Tomato Head. "I used to go to the one in Market Square," she said. "It’s a great lunch option."

Amanda Davis said Tomato Head was convenient to where she works downtown. "It’s great to have something like this downtown close to Maryville."

Keith Webb said he used to visit the Tomato Head on Market Square but now he’ll go to the Maryville location. "Maybe I won’t go to Knoxville again except for Sundown in the City," he said.

The restaurant will be open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. On Sundays, brunch will be served from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tomato Head can be reached by phone at 865-981-1080.

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