When the Tomato Head opened on Market Square 20 years ago as the Flying Tomato, it was a weekday lunch spot that served pizza and sandwiches with liberal doses of tofu, bean sprouts and the like on paper plates with plastic forks.
“It was really a different place when we opened. It was so much smaller. The service was terrible. We weren’t a chain restaurant. We didn’t wear uniforms. We had funky signs. It wasn’t completely embraced by everyone,” founder Mahasti Vafaie recalls.
The restaurant, whose menu has grown to include a large and unique variety of specialty pizzas and entrees, sandwiches, salads and desserts, may have been ahead of its time in 1990, but Vafaie kept Tomato Head alive, in part, because of loyal customers, many of them imported to work at now-defunct Whittle Communications, who appreciated its atypical menu.
Vafaie was quick to embrace recycling and the use of organic and locally grown food, meeting an increasing demand for healthier, more sustainable fare, and to serve it downtown, where until just the last few years the streets rolled up shortly after lunch. She turned the restaurant’s walls into ever-changing works by local artists and hosted live performances.
“She was the first one who challenged the way things were really done as far as thinking outside the box,” says restaurateur Randy Burleson, whose ventures include Aubrey’s, Sunspot and Barley’s Tap Room. “She has a passion for what she does and in my opinion that really put her out in the forefront.”
Since its opening, the Market Square location has expanded four times and Vafaie and her husband, Scott Partin, opened a second one in Maryville three years ago. They’ve also purchased property north of downtown with a third venture in mind.
In a town where restaurant entrepreneurs are legendary and restaurant failures even more frequent, Vafaie has built a successful franchise born of hard work and a stubbornness that she says wouldn’t allow her to fail. Yet, the 46-year-old mother of two shrugs off any notion that the success of Tomato Head is how she planned it.
“I never had a business plan or a vision. It’s not a concept. It’s just evolved into what it is,” she says.
Vafaie says she was going through a “mid-life crisis” when she decided to open a restaurant.
“I was pondering my life and what I was going to do. I had a degree and felt I needed to do something,” she says. “I had thought about owning a business and a restaurant made sense because I had experience. I wanted to do something different in Knoxville because there was nothing like it at the time.”
Vafaie got her first restaurant job in Murfreesboro, where she was sent from Iran when she was 14 to live with her older sister, who was studying at Middle Tennessee State University.
“The revolution had begun and my mother and father wanted me out. That was hard, having a 17 year old be your parent,” she recalls.
After graduating from Oakland High School, Vafaie went to MTSU for two years then transferred to the University of Tennessee where in 1987 she got a bachelor’s degree in science and mechanical engineering.
That prepared her for a career similar to that of her father, a petroleum engineer. Vafaie’s older sister became a dentist who lives in Florida; her younger sister is a fashion designer in Ohio.
“I always wanted to be employed growing up. In Iran women don’t have the same opportunities as men,” Vafaie says.
She worked for an oil well servicing company in Mississippi but after nine months, she decided it wasn’t for her. Having worked in restaurants to pay her way through college, she returned to Knoxville and went back to what was familiar, waiting tables at Josephine’s and bartending on weekends at Lord Lindsey’s.
She took some pre-med classes, but after a trip to New Orleans, opted to open a restaurant instead. She chose Market Square because “I was going to have a little lunch place. Most of the restaurants here were all lunch spots, only open Monday through Friday until 2 p.m.”
At the time, Market Square wasn’t the “happy and wonderful place it is now,” she says.
Vafaie is credited for playing a key role in its revitalization.
John Craig, president of the Market Square District Association, says Tomato Head’s success proved that “if you had a good business and were committed to it, then you didn’t need big, silver-bullet ideas like a dome over the square to draw people in.”
“It’s one of those places where people bring their friends to have an authentic Knoxville experience. It really helped set the tone for other businesses that followed - local, independently owned and very focused.”
Vafaie cleaned out the space at 12 Market Square herself, throwing out the carpet and painting the walls. She hired a few people about a month before she opened in August 1990.
“I realized I was running out of money and needed to open. We weren’t ready. I figured it out mostly as we went along,” she says. “It was lots of hours. I didn’t even know if I was even going to make money.”
Vafaie went without an official paycheck for four years, working 17 hour days - serving lunch at Tomato Head and picking up dinner shifts elsewhere at night. Later, when she extended Tomato Head’s hours, she got by with tips she earned waiting tables from her own restaurant.
“My main priority was paying the staff, then I did the best I could,” she recalls.
Her parents often encouraged her to find something else to do, but Vafaie wouldn’t have it.
“I loved it even when my feet were pounding and I smelled bad,” she says. “I loved it, still love it.”
It’s not uncommon for Vafaie to get up at 3 a.m. to bake fresh bread for her family or to simply experiment.
She admits it’s been an interesting journey for someone who didn’t know how to cook when she opened the restaurant with a small menu of five pizzas and a few sandwiches. Initially, Vafaie ran the counter. Another woman made sandwiches while someone else made the pizzas.
Originally, Vafaie wasn’t interested in selling pizza but her elder landlord didn’t want to move a pizza oven left from a previous tenant. Pizza became a passion, she says, and running unusual specials, like white pizza with frog legs or one with smoked snails and red onion, was what she and her employees liked to do most.
“It was ahead of its time as far as the food it served. It was a little more adventurous menu. They had interesting pizza toppings before others did and used a variety of ingredients to make creative sandwiches,” recalls Bill Lyons, senior director of policy and communications for the city of Knoxville who oversaw the Market Square redevelopment as then chair of Knoxville’s Community Development Corp.
“I think it showed what was possible,” he says. “It’s been a tremendous asset to downtown.”
Eventually, Vafaie opened on Friday nights, then every other Saturday night, then every Saturday night. She opened Thursday nights to try and ease the weekend crowds but the person making pizzas would get so busy she would have to help.
“That’s how I started working in the kitchen,” says Vafaie, who took classes at New York’s Culinary Institute of America and worked at other restaurants across the country for education and experience. “One thing I’m most proud of is it’s like going to your mom’s house. Everything is made from scratch. We’ve been very fortunate to get to know farmers and buy local and organic.”
But it wasn’t always so.
“At first we didn’t make everything. We bought pesto and salad dressings and bread. Gradually, I decided to start making everything myself, and the menu gradually grew. A lot of the changes that happens here is driven within. We’re constantly changing and constantly improving.”
The most challenging time, and Vafaie admits the most depressing, was in 2000 when she had to temporarily move Tomato Head because its south wall had collapsed. The restaurant relocated across Market Square where Shonos is now.
“It was dark and it had carpet. It was so not Tomato Head. It made me really upset to go to work everyday.”
Then Vafaie and Partin closed Lula, a Mexican-themed concept they opened in 1998 a couple doors down on Market Square.
“It was very difficult. It was a lot to deal with. Any time you go out of business it is traumatizing.”
The couple, who married in 1997, focused their efforts on Tomato Head with Partin coming to work full time in the restaurant when their son turned 2.
In 2007, the couple opened a second Tomato Head location in downtown Maryville, which was redeveloping itself much like Knoxville with historic buildings converted to lofts and condominiums.
“It reminds me in a lot of ways of our early days here,” she says from the Market Square restaurant. “You have a small, hard-core customer base. I still have that but you get a lot more tourists. Maryville is predominately regulars. I don’t have an influx of out of towners.”
Earlier this year, the couple purchased three buildings between Tyson and Stone streets across from Old Gray Cemetery just north of downtown. Eventually, Vafaie says they plan to open a bakery that will serve as a retail shop and service Tomato Head’s two locations.
“I’m fortunate enough to have such wonderful staff. They can take care of the restaurant,” she says. “I used to work a lot. I work a lot less now.”