Thursday, April 09, 2009

deep thoughts on business by a studio art major

I used to work at Regas.

With all due respect, I can't say I was necessarily "behind" the establishment, not in the way that I'm "behind" working at LaCosta in Market Square. I realize writing about Regas may be a touchy subject. I know how important it has been to Knoxville. It's been here since the early 1900s, 1917 to be exact? ( I know I was supposed to have memorized that.) My grandparents love the place and took me there when I was a student at UT. And Bill Regas, well, he's one of the kindest men I've ever met.

So I was a hostess, and, as all low-on-the-totem-pole employees do while they're windexing front door windows, I'd dream up ways to make the place better, finishing the sentence, "If I owned this place, I'd ___________"

Every Knoxvillian knows Regas has seen its fair share of problems over the years, closing for a short stint a few years ago and struggling to maintain its rank as one of Knoxville's most popular restaurants. Presently, I don't hear much about the place at all. When I worked there, their problem seemed clear to me, but who am I to know anything about business? Or do I? It doesn't seem difficult to spot a successful place when I see one. (obvious example: The Tomato Head)

This may be an oversimplification, but I think Regas holds so tightly to their past success that they can't make the proper adjustments to compete with newer restaurants. With good intention, they aim to please the people that have been going there since the place opened but tend to forget about the twenty and thirty year olds that makes up such a large part of Knoxville.

I'm pretty sure my parents and grandparents ate there when they were attending UT, but no one I know ate there while I was a student a few years ago. When and why did it lose its appeal to the younger crowd?

Everyone higher up blamed Regas's problems on its location at the intersection of Depot and Gay Street and the construction of I-40. Of course, I agree, it is not in the best area, but the more I look around Knoxville, I tend to disagree with the motto 'Location! Location! Location!' I think if a place has a good enough appeal, people will come. (Oh, yes, people will come, Ray.) A few examples? Sassy Ann's, Senor Taco, Tennessee Valley Bike Shop, Savelli's, Harby's Pizza, Chandler's, Three Rivers Market. (Feel free to add more examples via the comment option) Then there are those businesses in great locations whose lives are just a vapor (The Cube and every other business in the Bermuda Triangle on Cumberland and Seventeenth)

I've heard recently from my friend who still works at Regas that it seems to be doing fine. I'm really not trying to knock the place, but I think a lot about the life and death of businesses and what works and doesn't work in Knoxville. I almost think if someone were to sit down and think about it, they may find a pretty strong formula new establishments could follow to survive in Knoxville. (Or maybe they'd find it's completely random)

I wonder if maybe in a few years Regas will come back in style like big sunglasses or gold jewelry. Maybe the hipster will one day say, "Let's ride our bikes to Regas for some cheese from the cheese cart and a couple of shrimp cocktails. I've gotta see that sweet poster of Dave Thomas again."

I, for one, would absolutely love to see that happen.


Anonymous said...

On occasion, I go to Regas for happy hour or late evening drinks. Why? It's close, it's dark, and it's almost always empty at those times. I think it must be busiest at lunch and in the early evenings, when the slightly older demographic that it attracts prefers to eat. I will say this: On Secretary's Day, my office ate lunch there (we did not know that it was Secretary's Day). That place was packed. I mean, reservations to the max. It seems to me that the demographic that continues to support slightly dated traditions will always support Regas.

B, this was a very good and thoughtful post.

The one claim that I disagree with is your list of places that thrive despite "bad locations." A lot of the places you listed are in North Knoxville, which I wouldn't consider a lacking location at all. There are tons of neighborhoods in that area and North Knox lifers and lovers who support those great establishments. East Knox/Magnolia has a ton of neighborhoods, too, and plenty of patrons who live in and love that part of town. I have heard, still, a LOT of people say that Downtown is a "bad" location (plenty of people from other neighborhoods never come here because of the drive, or fear, or who knows why else), but we all know that Downtown is on a huge upswing. I just want to be careful not to say that some neighborhoods where a lot of people call home are unlikely places for businesses to thrive.

I agree with you about Regas; it would be nice to see that place thrive. I think in some cases, the idea of tradition wins over "success," though. I think that maybe that's what the Regas folks are clinging to.

Robert said...

I've never been to Regas, but would be willing to give it a go.

It seems from my limited perspective that it narry would appeal to the 'hip twenty-something' set. i just cant see them sitting down for a ribeye with a bunch of seniors at a 5:00 dinner. skinny jeans on guys and non-ironic 'old lady' glasses just don't mix.

that said, it is pretty great that they've stuck to what they do best (again, im assuming that that's steaks et al), and have not tried to mix it up with some sad attempt at french asian fusion or some such inappropriate nonsense.

The Modern Gal said...

Great post, B.

I feel like the same could be said for the Orangery closing, and the Orangery definitely wasn't a victim of location. I think they alienate the younger crowd by both clinging to the past and having pricey menus. The young adult crowd will go to the older, established restaurants and the young adult crowd will do pricey menus, but put them together and it goes elsewhere to places like La Costa or Chandlers. I don't know why that is, but I know I'm guilty.

B said...

em, I definitely agree about the fact that some of the places I listed in "bad" spots are situated in a community that supports them. This post is definitely from the perspecitve of a person that stays mostly downtown.

The thing that I love about Knoxville is that nothing is really that far away. It's funny that I've been here long enough to think that traveling 20 minutes is a lot.

ck said...

I think part of the reason places like Regas don't thrive is the interior design. At one time, obviously, they were updating the design. The interior is not 1920s, more like late 1970s. They were updating for their clientele in those decades, but stopped for some reason. It seems that once a business stops innovating, they stop attracting new clients. Sadly, this seems to be the case for Regas. The building they're in is the base of what was once a huge hotel. Can you imagine if they peeled back all the 70s wood paneling what they would find? Maybe Regas needs to get back to its roots- early 20th century elegance. Anything but 1970s chic, please.

As far as location, that block could be the next Old City with Regas as the anchor. And Depot St. is one of the most beautiful yet ignored streets in the city.

max said...


Great post. However, I can see myself riding my bike to Regas for drinks and cheese. I did that like 10 times last summer. Em is right, too. The dark atmosphere at the bar really appeals to me. I can't have good conversations in a brightly lit place.

Your post has inspired me to go grab a burger this week. I might even go right now for lunch.

As a business, I honestly don't want to see them change. Now, the 70s style that CK just mentioned isn't really that appealing, but I have a feeling that if they changed it to something else it would brighten up too much. I'm like a bat you see.


B said...

something a little more sleek could help. it's all cluttery in there. some people ate it up though. they loved looking at the 50 different old menus that are framed and up on the wall. it's tacky if you ask me. make a scrapbook or something.

B said...

maxwell, would you have hung out there as much if you didn't know people that worked there?

max said...

good question. i probably wouldn't have roamed that direction on my own, but i have heard that they have good burgers. i went there as a kid for dinner and remember liking the food and atmosphere.

soooo. yeah. i would probably say that if i didn't have a few friends who worked there, i would not go on my own as a student. but now i'm not a student and am craving a good burger. times change.


Anonymous said...

I dont mind the old interior. It reminds me of an old place I used to go to in Marshall, Michigan called Schuler's. It's not the interior design so much as it looks like Regas could really stand to be dusted. It's very dusty in there. Max, let's all go for martinis one night. Vodkagin ones.

max said...

ha. ha. ha.

Robert said...

the Orangery is closing?! THAT sucks - not that I've ever picked up the bill when dining, but seriously, are there not any old farts in Knoxville that want to shell out a sawbuck for some fois gras? This is a frustrating thing for me about Knoxville - that there is wealth in the community, but that no one will support those things that really help to give Knoxville any sort of character/identity ... besides UT athletics.

The Modern Gal said...

I don't think it's a done deal. They're trying to sell the business, but I think the word is if they can't they'll close. For now it's open, so I'm sure they'd love for you to pick up the bill, Robert. Perhaps you'll take your fellow Wigshoppers out?

Discordia said...

Hmm...I had heard last week that the Orangery was closed now. Gone. At least for the time being.

As for Regas, the group I work for held a banquet there about 9 months ago. The service was sub par, and the same could be said for the food. I honestly think they've just lost management that truly "gets it".

benjamin said...

the problem here is definitely UT football - i think that's obvious.

but seriously, the hostesses at regas are good enough reason for everyone in knoxville to hit that place up for a meal. they are attractive, is what i'm saying.

Anonymous said...

I have worked at Regas for almost 2 years now, as a hostess mostly, but also as a server for a short time. As for the dust...I promise I dust (that's part of my job) but I only dust the foyer. I think Regas has a chronic case of the dust bunnies, though. I think they breed in the dark, damp, 100 year old corners of that creepy place.
Anyway, I have seen much of the goings on in that place, and I agree that there are some problems. They could definitely improve that place in many different ways. A lot of it comes down to profit, though. I think there's a lot they want to do but can't because they don't have the $$$,$$$,$$$.
There are also some insider problems that have nothing to with moolah. Not sure if I can disclose, though.
Regas is like your love her, you laugh at her, you wish she understood you better or knew how to turn on a computer, you can learn a lot from her, but you don't want to stay at her house for longer than a few nights, because she kind of smells funny, she's falling apart, and she farts a lot.
But she can be taught.

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