Fountain City Diner Recalls Simpler Times

Dennis and Penny Wagner's answer to the recession? Open an old-school diner in Fountain City.

If all the pieces for your dream are falling into place, you just can't worry about a recessionary economy, says Penny Wagner. She and husband Dennis Wagner opened the Fountain City Diner Sept. 1, amid double-digit local unemployment and record-high foreclosure rates, but the time was right for them. "A lot of people did ask, ‘What are you doing trying to start a business now?' Our response was, "It is a recession. People need a place to get value for their money, not spend $10 and still walk out hungry."

The Fountain City Diner's specialties are breakfast all day, with hearty portions of egg dishes and specialty pancakes in the $6-$8 range; an old-fashioned lunch special like turkey and dressing or meatloaf with two sides that runs about $9, and homemade milkshakes and sundaes. "We cut corn off the cob every day," says Penny, who handles book work and public relations. "We snap beans every day. The sweet potatoes for the pancakes are cooked and pureed here. In the diner days, you didn't have all the boxed stuff."

The restaurant site, a boxy, roomy stucco off Tazewell Pike next door to Rita's Bakery and across the street from Pratt's Country Store, fairly beckoned to them, says Penny. "Years ago it was Smithwood Drug," she recalls. "And it's been other little restaurants here and there. Most recently, it was Leo's Cafe, and then, for a few months, a Caribbean cuisine place, Marley's. We live in Gibbs and would pass it every day—we'd always noticed what a pleasant little community this was. Then one day it was, ‘Oh, look, Marley's closed.' Then, ‘Oh, the building is available.' It just worked out."

Dennis, a 1992 grad of the New England Culinary Institute, has worked in the food-service industry for some 25 years, and dreamed of owning his own place for 20. "That's the goal, to work for yourself," he says.

Penny, well, she wants Dennis to have what he wants. "He's in the zone when he's here," she says. "Sometimes I come by just to watch him play." Her culinary role extends only to "official taster," she says. "I'm really good at that because I cannot be fired for my opinions!"

The taster was busy in the six weeks it took to install equipment (including an old-fashioned milkshake machine behind a sleek soda counter), accent the oak-and-red vinyl booths with some oversized framed photos of Fountain City Park, and, most importantly, create a menu. Their 15-year-old twins, Daisy and Matthew, also collaborated. "We put a lot of thought and energy into that menu," adds Dennis. "We wanted the feel of an old diner—not necessarily the '50s, with retro stuff, but the old diners where you went in and the food was really good—wholesome, old-style."

The cornerstone of the menu is breakfast, which is served all the time during the restaurant's Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. schedule. The typical two eggs with side meat and bread are available, but Dennis, who's worked stints at the University of Tennessee, Carson-Newman, in five-star restaurants in Denver and Atlanta, and, most recently, as chef for the Knoxville Marriott, features plenty of surprises. One signature is Sweet Potato Praline Pecan Pancakes, another, the Very Veggie omelette, with creamed spinach, roasted red sweet pepper, grilled shiitake and onions, plus the diner makes its own homemade granola. He's also added a Kraut Burger and Catfish Po' Boy to the list of burgers and open-face sandwiches.

The $25 Diner Saurus, which involves 12 scoops of ice cream, is another oddity. "We've sold maybe 10," says Penny. Son Matthew ate the first one ever made, a stunt guaranteed to go down in diner history. "He had a contest with another employee to see if it could be done in less than an hour. He ate in all in 50 minutes. The other employee conked out about halfway through."

Another menu item has caused some confusion: fresh Corned Beef Hash, not from a can. "Customers tell us, ‘I haven't had hash like that since I lived in the North. Y'all are Yankees, aren't you?'" says Penny. "It's the real deal, but we are Southerners, through and through."

Knoxvillians to the core, too. Penny attended high school at Halls, Dennis was in the first graduating class at South-Young. He worked for the D'Lites restaurant chain, as did Penny's sister, who fixed them up on a blind date. They've been a couple ever since, but Penny does not plan a live-and-work together future. Though she's got 10 years experience with the FDIC, her favorite job is as stay-at-home mom. "I'm home-schooling the twins, and my eventual goal is to not be employed here," she says. "I'd like to get back home and just do the paperwork, help out behind the scenes."

They're not in the black yet, but are at a good place after two months, Penny says. "We're probably where most restaurants are after two months, that's what our accountant keeps telling us. We're covering a lot of the overhead and the initial set-up, and we're growing."

Daisy and Matthew work 11-12 hours a week at the restaurant, and their mom says she's okay with them following their dad into the restaurant business—or not. "They love it now, but I don't know that they would choose it for a career," she says. "I would want them to do whatever the Lord leads them to do. I want them to follow their own dream."