Grab and Go: With Chick-fil-A Vacating First Tennessee Plaza, Downtown Faces Dearth of Brand Names

Downtown has lost a lot of smells in the past 10 years. Some good, some bad. Most people I know liked the fragrance of coffee roasting at JFG. Not so many cared for the distinctive odor of the Lay's meat packing plant. But both were prominent scents that you could whiff just about anywhere downtown, especially in the mornings, until their departure. There was something distinctly downtown Knoxville about that smell of the coffee beans roasting.

Other smells were peculiar to a particular part of the neighborhood, depending on what you were near. One of those recently bid farewell to the center city. Most any day, Monday through Friday, anyway, the southern end of downtown around the city's tallest buildings smelled like fried chicken. More specifically, it smelled like Chick-fil-A fried chicken. After years in the First Tennessee Plaza, the recently embattled chain has moved out and taken its fried-chicken smell with it.

While some may have said good riddance to the franchise that embroiled itself in social debate this year, it was part of the daily routine for hundreds of downtown workers. You could pretty much count on a line at the counter from the early breakfast biscuit hours until it closed mid-afternoon. A steady flow of white paper bags and Styrofoam cups bearing the distinctive red logo came and went across the plaza day in and day out during the workweek. One theory I had about their departure is that a company can only predictably absorb so many free iced tea refills, and this location broke that model. But rumor has it that the chain may reopen after the beginning of the year. In any case, amid downtown's ever growing selection of restaurants, it represents a staple that is part and parcel of suburbia, but almost extinct here: the chain restaurant. For better or worse, visitors to the center city aren't likely to find the familiar grab-and-go fare of memorized McMenus that dominate America's strip malls and food courts.

More than one downtown eatery has expanded operations beyond the center city. Tomato Head, a Market Square institution, gave downtown Maryville a shot before relocating their second store to Kingston Pike. And Nama grew quickly from its intimate confines on the 100 Block of Gay Street to Bearden. By the same token, downtown has garnered locations from locally-owned eatery expansions such as the newly opened Crú, and our recent import from across the mountains, Tupelo Honey. But none of these would be familiar to most of Americans the way the big chains are.

For whatever reason, as the number of homegrown eateries downtown has flourished, the number of those familiar logos you expect to find on interstate off-ramp signs have dwindled. Some will remember when there was a McDonald's in the same building recently vacated by Chick-fil-A (the homegrown chain Petro's also left the building some months back), or when the now Knoxville Visitor Center was known as Wendy's. And while I'm sure it has a name of its own, most people I know are going to refer to the building at the corner of Gay Street and Union Avenue as "the old Arby's" until something goes in there to replace that memory. Of the many restaurants now downtown, I can count on one hand those that are affiliated with a national or regional chain. That number grows exponentially as you move further away from the Central Business District.

No doubt some of the aforementioned franchises left downtown during its hibernation late last century at a time when the streets emptied out when the offices closed. Most of those, like the recently departed (and perhaps only-on-hiatus) Chick-fil-A, kept banker's hours, closing before rush hour even as their counterparts in the burbs were expanding late-night and dollar menus. But with a thriving movie theater and downtown becoming a venue growing in appeal as much to high-schoolers as hipsters, I can't help but wonder if there isn't a market for at least a few happy meals. They're going to get bought, whether it's down the block or on the way home.

I'm not sure if encouraging that sort of enterprise is a good thing or a bad thing. I'm certainly happy to see downtown as a showcase for local entrepreneurship and culinary flair (even when it comes to non-restaurant retail, our local offerings outnumber the national names). But it's not unusual to field questions from out-of-town visitors about where to find the familiar icons they've come to expect. People have expectations of a civilized city. Never mind that—even though we may have lost the aroma of beans roasting—we've got some nice local places for a great cup of coffee downtown. I get asked for directions to the "nearest" Starbucks. And I happily provide them. I just don't have the heart to tell people that there's only one.