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The little restaurant that could: Tupelo Honey still thinks it can open soon

February 26th, 2014 9:20 pm by Nathan Baker

The little restaurant that could: Tupelo Honey still thinks it can open soon

Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press

Renovations are chugging along at Johnson City’s historic CC&O Railroad Depot in preparation for the arrival of Asheville, N.C.’s Tupelo Honey Cafe, but the opening of the restaurant has again been delayed at the station.

Marketing Director Elizabeth Sims said Wednesday that, like many curmudgeons, the 104-year-old train depot has been slow to accept change, but the company is now expecting a mid- to late-May debut.

“It’s a challenging building,” she said from the still-empty freight bay where the eatery will soon take shape. “To take this building and turn it into a restaurant is a tall order.”

Before the space was turned over to Tupelo Honey, Scott Rainey, president of Rainey Contracting, said his workers discovered a larger than expected amount of rot in the bay’s roof, setting the project back a month or two.

Now that the restaurant’s crews have taken over, Sims said electricians are running wiring and preparing the space to move in all the needed furniture and fixtures.

Eventually, the Johnson City Tupelo Honey will have an open performance kitchen in the center of the bay, with a prep kitchen on the side closest to Buffalo Street.

The main entrance will be on the opposite end, near the outdoor platform, where some alfresco dining and a fireplace will be set up.

The bar is planned on the same side as the entrance door with a special, Johnson City-specific display.

Sims said Fred Alsop, director of East Tennessee State University’s George L. Carter Railroad Museum, has been commissioned to oversee the building of a working model showing off the city’s railroad heritage.

Alsop said the 16-feet-by-3-feet model affixed to a community table where bar patrons can wait, will have five moving trains representing the Clinchfield, Southern and East Tennessee and North Carolina (Tweetsie) railroads, all transportation companies that served the city during the railroad boom.

The model will also have trolleys and many of downtown Johnson City’s recognizable historical landmarks, including the depot in which the restaurant is taking up residence.

“A lot of the buildings we’ll make as accurate as we can, but with the specific size of the table, we might have to take some artistic license,” Alsop said. “Hopefully it will look enough like Johnson City for people to be able to recognize it.”

A team of his fellow model railroad enthusiasts are logging many hours perfecting the little “Little Chicago,” he said.

Like its other locations in Asheville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Charlotte, N.C., and Greenville, S.C., Sims said the dining room will feature a local flavor with memorabilia and photographs designed to tell Johnson City’s narrative.

The dining space will seat approximately 230 people, Sims said, and will employ between 80 and 100 workers.

While parking in the downtown area is at a premium, there should be enough for those diners, even during the rushes.

Parking lots adjacent to the depot and across Buffalo are open to patrons, and Sims said a neighboring building owner has offered the use of his lot as overflow during off-business hours.

Although it’s presented its challenges, Sims said building in the century-old depot was the right move for Tupelo Honey.

“It’s a wonderful structure,” she said. “It’s already got so much personality, we really don’t need to do a whole lot to make it interesting.”

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