Harry Arsi, part-owner of the new Paragon Diner on Franklin Terrace Court, stands in front of the restaurant's dessert case Wednesday. (Tony Duncan / Johnson City Press)
A foray into the Tri-Cities to scout out Tennessee’s favorable business climate led restaurateur Harry Arsi by happenstance to the location of his newest venture on Johnson City’s north side.
Paragon Diner opened Nov. 19 in the building formerly occupied by Atlanta Bread Company on Franklin Terrace Court, in view of the well-trafficked State of Franklin Road corridor, and has slowly rolled out business to perfect operations.
The road to the new breakfast, lunch and dinner eatery began when Arsi and his partners, Peter Symeon and Gus Koubis, traveled to Kingsport in January in hopes of finding a suitable Tennessee location for a new restaurant.
“A friend told us we should check out Kingsport, but we went there and couldn’t find anything, so then a real estate agent said we should check out Johnson City,” Arsi said Wednesday from Paragon’s newly renovated dining room. “When we drove to Johnson City, we had never been here before, so we just drove by and said ‘What exit do we take?’ We didn’t know.
“So by accident, we took Exit 19 and saw this place was closed, but there was no sign or anything for it.”
The three eventually contacted real estate agent and Mitch Cox Companies President John Speropulos, and, after studying local demographics and growth potential, signed a lease on the building in August.
Arsi and his parents, both accomplished chefs, have owned and managed a number of upscale establishments in North Carolina, including the Santorini Grill, a Mediterranean restaurant in Hickory, N.C., but he said Paragon is more laid back in comparison.
“I’ve worked the upscale, I know fine dining, Pete and Gus know the diner component, so we had to incorporate everything into one,” he said. “I think we got the balance that you get the feel that you’re in an upscale restaurant, but the prices are not upscale.”
While Arsi and Koubis focus on overseeing the front of the house, training serving staff and decorating the dining room, Symeon manages the kitchen, devising the menu and training chefs.
On the well-populated menu, the Paragon offers traditional breakfast fare, like egg sandwiches, pancakes and omelets; soups and salads, hot and cold sandwiches and wraps, surf and turf and pasta dishes.
The desserts, made in house, include a dozen different types of cakes, each about as big as three large pizzas stacked on top of each other.
Arsi said everything on the menu is made from scratch, using fresh, not canned, ingredients.
In opening the Paragon Diner, Arsi is leaning on his more than 15 years in the food service industry, combined with the experience of his two partners.
His first job after his family immigrated to the United States from Greece in 1998 was busing tables, but four short years later, when he was 20, Arsi became an owner in his first restaurant, a bar and grill called the Blue Monkey in Wilmington, N.C.
Through his restaurant career, Arsi said he has worked for larger corporations, but he prefers the control afforded by owning his own businesses.
His aversion to corporate overlords was actually a consideration that pushed the partners away from Johnson City, but the three overcame their initial concerns.
“When we did the research, we were trying to see what’s missing from this area,” he said. “The No. 1 thing that scared us was all of the corporations. We were afraid that people here did not welcome individual owners, because all we saw was corporations.”
But Arsi and his partners stuck it out, and now he says he likes Northeast Tennessee so well he’s decided to buy a home locally and put all of his North Carolina restaurants up for sale.
“It’s the growth potential, it’s big here,” he said. “In North Carolina, you don’t see the growth, it has died down over the years a lot. Here, there’s a lot of growth, and people are welcome to newcomers, they go out and support the restaurants. In North Carolina, you don’t get that, it’s very hard to make it there.”
Although the Paragon is still in its early stages, Arsi said he’s eyeing other areas locally for prospects, and his parents are considering bringing their own flare for fine dining somewhere close.
The Paragon Diner is open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Find out more on the restaurant’s Facebook page.