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Tupelo Honey sweet on city after tour

Madison Mathews • Apr 20, 2012 at 7:12 AM

Tupelo Honey Cafe, a highly popular eatery based in Asheville, N.C., might not have a home in the Tri-Cities yet, but officials with the restaurant might be changing that in the future following a visit to the area Wednesday.

The visit was in response to a social media campaign launched last month in which the restaurant asked its hungry fans to vote for the next town that will house a Tupelo Honey Cafe after it opens in Knoxville, its third location, this summer.

During the five days the campaign was live, the Tri-Cities came out on top. And that love for everything Tupelo was in full swing as a team from the restaurant met with representatives of each of the Tri-Cities.

“We just had such a incredibly wonderful outpouring from all of the Tri-Cities that we just thought we should go down and take a look at every place, because we had been thinking that if we opened another restaurant after Knoxville we would probably go east of Asheville in North Carolina, but that outpouring changed that some. We’re seriously considering coming to the Tri-Cities,” Tupelo Honey’s Director of Marketing Elizabeth Sims said.

Members of the Washington County Economic Development Council and other city leaders met with the restaurant group during their stop in Johnson City.

The Tupelo Honey team was welcomed with a huge banner showing the city’s support of the restaurant as well as a basket filled with local items, like a Buccaneer basketball from East Tennessee State University and a six-pack from Jonesborough’s Depot Street Brewery.

“We learned a lot about all of the Tri-Cities and we learned a lot about Johnson City from that group. They did a wonderful presentation for us and were very responsive,” Sims said.

WCEDC Executive Vice President Mitch Miller said he thought the meeting went very well and was confident Johnson City sparked some interest with the Tupelo Honey folks.

“You look at the labor market and the population here. I know we’re not as big of a city as Asheville, but there are a lot of similarities in the market. We have lots of people coming here for the university and the hospital. I think that’s part of the reason why Bonefish Grill came here and Fresh Market came here,” he said.

Miller said Johnson City’s numbers speak to its strength in terms of supporting businesses.

According to statistics from the ETSU Bureau of Business and Economic Research, Johnson City had $1.9 billion in retail sales in 2011. When compared to Kingsport’s $1.5 billion and Bristol’s $1 billion, Miller said Johnson City has the better buying power.

“If you want to look at it in terms of sales, we’re the retail capital of the Tri-Cities. We’re the restaurant capital of the Tri-Cities. People are coming from all over to spend money in Johnson City. That buying power is in Johnson City. I think, long term, what we have to offer will benefit their restaurant,” Miller said.

Those numbers, coupled with influx of people spending their dollars in the city, are certainly attractive to a restaurant wanting to expand into other markets, Miller added.

Sims said the team was impressed with the fact Johnson City is a “cool” town and the tremendous growth the city is seeing.

“There’s a lot of construction, there’s certainly a lot of activity on ETSU and the medical community is huge,” Sims said. “I think Tupelo would do well there, but I think we probably would do well in the other cities also.”

Whatever the outcome may be, area leaders believe the entire region will gain a major win if Tupelo Honey makes its next home in the Tri-Cities.

“I think it bodes well for the whole Tri-Cities. It would only help us attract more business,” Miller said.

That kind of “co-opetition” is something Sims said the Tupelo Honey team likes to see.

“I think that our ownership is definitely thinking positively about opening somewhere in the Tri-Cities,” she said.

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