The Unfulfilled Promise of Onion Rings

Anticipating Gridiron Burgers on Gay Street

Despite hard economic times, if you walk down Gay Street on a weekday, you'll still hear a lot of hammers swinging. Work continues on the Crimson Building at Gay and Summit Hill Drive. And along the 500 block, behind a plywood barricade, sounds of construction ring out from the old WROL building. Next door, workers move about behind the dusty windows of the old S&W Cafeteria.

But it's strangely silent a few doors up next to the Riviera. The space slated to become Gridiron Burgers hasn't seen much activity lately.

I love a good hamburger (cheeseburger, really). And I'm particularly fond of places that make them the primary focus of their menu. When you hang your hat on burgers, you've got to deliver. So after hearing about Gridiron Burgers on Clinton Highway a while back, I made the trek to check it out. I wasn't disappointed. Not only did they have a great burger, but also the best onion rings I think I've ever eaten. And I've eaten a lot.

So when the announcement came last year that they would be opening a location on Gay Street, I couldn't have been more delighted. It seemed a perfect addition to the growing fare in downtown.

Everything seemed to be rolling right along. City Council unanimously approved a five-year lease, along with $300,000 to build out the city-owned space. Conversion Properties, representing the Public Building Authority (PBA), which manages the city's properties, had negotiated the lease with the Gridiron owner, Collin Cope, which included more than $29,000 in "tenant improvement allowances" to assist in building out the restaurant. And last January, my mouth began to water at the prospect of onion rings and the anticipated opening by summer.

But then things went south. The promised burgers and onion rings never materialized.

Last year, I found myself deep in west Knoxville having some warranty work done on the car on Parkside Drive. I remembered that Gridiron had opened a second location in Turkey Creek, and decided while I was already so far out, I'd drop in. I asked the girl who took my order about the downtown store, and she said that they were hoping to open in December.

Meanwhile, the space on Gay saw some construction and a plywood barricade was erected along the sidewalk shuttering off view of the space. Then it got awfully quiet behind there.

Last month, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported that the eatery's anticipated third location—the one slated for downtown—was "uncertain." The article noted that a meeting was scheduled for the following week between the PBA and Cope. Shortly after, the original store on Clinton Highway closed.

So last week, I gassed up, dusted off the driver's seat of my vehicle and headed west. The call of my beloved onion rings, along with a curiosity about whether they would ever be a reality within walking distance, had me driving to the Gridiron's now lone outpost on the westernmost wilds of Turkey Creek. Everything was just as I had remembered it. Excellent.

And that's exactly what I told Sonny Hall, the general manager, when he took a brief break from the kitchen to check with diners about their satisfaction. I asked about the downtown location, and he referred me to the store's owner. I subsequently contacted Cope, and inquired with him about the status of the downtown location.

Cope said he's "still trying to make it work," and "still working on investors."

"I think it could be my best store," he said. "The theater's doing well, and the city has been great in working with me."

But just how long can you keep things on hold? It's been over a year since the announcement, and it was reported that Gridiron would only begin paying rent after moving in. Since the property is owned by the city, I wanted to know what was up. And I wanted my onion rings.

So I contacted Dale Smith, CEO of the PBA, about the outcome of their meeting last month. He said they had "agreed to deduct one month's rent from the tenant improvement allowance beginning October 1 through March 30, 2009. If he (Cope) is able to obtain financing, this would keep the City pretty much financially whole. If he is unable to obtain financing by March 30 and begin paying rent, we'd either have to agree to some further changes or invoke the personal guarantee on his lease and then go look for another tenant."

I hope to hear some construction activity coming from behind that plywood wall pretty soon. I'd like to see another locally owned restaurant downtown. Gridiron Burgers' onion rings are delightful. But they're not 30-mile-round-trip-drive delightful. If I could walk to them, they'd be magnificent.