Charles Chandler did not grow up eating pulled pork. "In fact, we didn't even have it the first couple years of Chandler's, but people kept asking for it," says the wiry fellow with just a touch of gray in his hair, a Vols cap on his head, and a gleam in his eye.
The barbecue that's now a must-have menu item is pretty much the only thing at Chandler's that hasn't been heavily influenced by Charles' or wife Gwen's days of growing up in Sevierville, or their close-knit extended family. Like the more than 300 gospel CDs that play on shuffle, the Williams Brothers and Willie Neal Johnson being particular favorites. "I've always played gospel all the time," says Charles. "And that's what I want to listen to. One day Jennifer [Braxton, his younger daughter] was here on her own and she changed the music to some rock. I had to let her know how serious gospel music is to me, and she's never messed with the system again."
The couple, who have been married 35 years, opened the restaurant after Charles' 30-year career as a mechanic at Oak Ridge National Laboratories and Gwen's layoff from Levi's. They work together every day, and drive back and forth to their East Knoxville home together, too. The serene, gentle woman and her calm, low-voiced husband met through Gwen's brother James Parton, who was Charles' best friend (and along with his sister, a distant cousin to Dolly Parton, whom he attended high school with). "Gwen was around us some, and one day I looked at her and thought, ‘She's awful pretty,' and things just blossomed from there," says Charles.
James Parton is still his best friend and can be seen behind the counter picking up slack every now and then; and Gwen's other brother Jeff also is on the scene. "He'll come to work sometimes so I can go home," says Gwen with a calm nod. "Anything I've got my brother can have. He's a good brother."
Charles and his brother Roger Chandler still own family land deeded from the white Chandlers to their recently freed slaves. "I'm from the country," he says. "I could sit down right now and milk a cow or harness a mule."
Growing up in Sevierville in the '50s and '60s, that was a different age for black people, says Charles, but he says it without rancor. "Like all the others, there were places we couldn't live. My grandfather was a contractor, and he built the two theaters there, but if we went to the movies, we had to sit in the balcony. I used to work in the restaurant my uncle owned, the Mountain House. My mom and cousin worked there, too, but we couldn't go into the dining room when there were customers."
What a contrast with the Chandlers' own restaurant, a bustling, joyous melting pot of football players, neighborhood families, politicians, movie stars, black, white, old, young, wealthy, scraping to keep it all together. They're there for the ribs, the plate lunches, the mashed potatoes, the greens, and have been coming around for a decade now—Chandler's 10th anniversary was May 19.
"It's been a ride," says Gwen. "And it's been a joy, really. We've met people in here you'd never meet in your life otherwise." Bill Haslam came and worked the line so he could meet people during his first run for mayor. On his turn to feed the Senate, Sen. Lamar Alexander imported Chandler's food, sending an aide to drive from Knoxville to D.C. because it couldn't be shipped. This past week, new Vol Coach Derek Dooley dropped by and ate fried chicken. His photo's on the way, and will find a place of honor, maybe near the signed photo of Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Gary Wade on the wall alongside framed prints of holy names for Jesus and a baptism in a Southern black church.
"I grew up with Gary, and I'll never forget his mom and dad," says Charles, his voice dropping low. "They owned a dry goods store and gave me my first credit when others would have bid me fare thee well."
The restaurant is closed just four days a year. When asked what she does for fun, Gwen's husband answers for her with a ready smile: "Bake!"
Daughter Stephanie Thompson is in charge of the catering arm, while Jennifer has been deputized to initiate new projects like an online store featuring Chandler's T-shirts, a line of bottled sauces, and maybe food carts on University of Tennessee game days. The two daughters will eventually run the entire show.
Jennifer's son is named Chandler. After college, she met her husband in Philadelphia, and then he followed her when she moved back here. "Some say he moved for love," she says, her easy humorous tone the same as her father's. "But I don't know, it might have been the food."