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Downtown restaurateurs discuss opening for business in Johnson City

Jennifer Sprouse • Jun 25, 2012 at 11:22 AM

Owning and operating your own restaurant comes with a lot of perks, as well as a lot of work and responsibility to survive and thrive in an unstable economy.

With renovation efforts in constant motion throughout downtown Johnson City, many local restaurateurs have slowly filtered in over the years to take a shot at running their own place.

Lorraine and Elmer Washington, owners of Taste Budz, said after they both retired from Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport they decided to beat boredom by opening their cafe-style restaurant.

The restaurant at 300 S. Roan St. has been a variety of things in the past, but for the past eight years the local eatery has been chugging along with their feel-good food, such as macaroni and cheese, smoked ribs, fresh vegetables and signature desserts.

Lorraine said she attributes their success in the downtown area to the consistency they maintain with the quality of their food and service.

“You need to be consistent in what you do and keeping your quality high,” she said. “I like my quality to be as nice as the day I started. That’s the secret here. That’s all it is.”

She said the 8-year-old restaurant hasn’t hit too many roadblocks since its initial start up, but they have had a few.

“I think one of the challenges probably would be the overhead and the rising costs of gas, which makes the food prices go up. I think that’s the main challenge,” Lorraine said. “Of course, the parking situation is just horrible down here, but I think they’re working on that also. I think that’s one of the biggest hurdles down here.”

Elmer said other challenges people deal with include the start-up regulations and many other hidden elements they don’t consider when opening their own place, like installing a grease trap underground that catches the sediments going down the sink.

While Lorraine said she believes some of the regulations set by the city could be eased up on a bit, one she takes very seriously is the health inspection and regulations set by the health department.

“I don’t have any problem with the regulations whatsoever, because you want to be clean, you want people to be sanitary with everything, so I don’t gripe in that department,” she said.

Easing into opening their own restaurant, the Washingtons said starting up, for them, wasn’t a bad experience.

“We didn’t have any start-up problems because our landlord kind of went through everything for us and she had it ready for us to see when we walked in,” Lorraine said. “I think that if I was just starting up, I would want everything –– every rule, every regulation –– on paper, in front of me before I jump out there and get into it.”

The Washingtons continue to work hard in their retirement and said they feel blessed to have the restaurant.

“I get a lot of satisfaction from people enjoying things that they’ve never eaten before and end up really enjoying it and asking for it at a later date,” Lorraine said.

She said the food served at Taste Budz derives from recipes given to her from her mother and grandmother.

Another positive to their restaurant she said was their location, as it is the first restaurant seen after getting off the interstate onto Market Street.

While there is not a restaurant association they are part of, Lorraine said they do meet with the operators of restaurants and bars in the surrounding community.

“We stay in touch with each other through email and we have meetings every so often, especially when we’re going to have a special event like some of the festivals coming up,” she said. “We all get together and talk about, you know, pricing and what all we’re going to have. It’s a good relationship down here.”

A fairly new pizza joint, Schmucks, popped up around the beginning of 2012 at 109 Buffalo St.

Adam Fair, Schmucks’ owner, said opening has been a positive change in lifestyle from what he’s used to.

“I got tired of waking up at 4 every morning to go to work,” he said. “I like the location and I like the pizza business.”

The restaurant features signature hand-tossed and Chicago-style pizza, as well as subs and philly cheesesteaks.

“We’re working on our liquor license,” Fair said. “We’ve got beers right now. Twelve beers on tap.”

He said while things have been running smoothly, opening wasn’t an easy feat due to figuring out the city’s regulations and inspections.

“Definitely real hard opening, just because (of) inspections and something would go wrong,” he said. “It’s not easy for sure. You’re waiting on everybody and you’re just sitting here spending money and you’re not making any.”

Fair said another challenge he’s run across is the homeless population in the downtown area. He said he would like to see the city help with this situation. He said some of the homeless have even gone as far as to steal tips from tables inside his establishment.

He said he would like to see more events like the Blue Plum Festival, as well as other locally owned restaurants move into the area to hopefully continue to change the mentality of those unfamiliar or intimidated with the downtown area.

Fair said he’s enjoyed building his business from the ground up.

“Well, you’re your own boss,” he said. “You get to see it grow and develop. It’s almost like watching your kid grow up.”

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