He had just gotten off the phone with his wife, Diana Morelen, who was on the hunt for a job and had just been offered a position at a medical center in Baltimore.
But Brand said Morelen couldn’t stop thinking about another city she had recently visited: Johnson City.
“I was like, ‘Johnson City? Isn’t that the place where every restaurant was closed and they had to take you to Cookout because they couldn’t entertain you anywhere else?’” Brand said on Wednesday, “and she was like, ‘Yeah, that’s the one.’”
Morelen rerouted her flight from Baltimore to Johnson City and Brand hopped in the car, got a couple of hours of sleep at a truck stop, and arrived at the airport to pick his wife up at noon.
The couple checked into a room at the Carnegie Hotel and went downstairs to grab a drink at Wellington’s Restaurant. Brand was impressed.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, this bar is incredible,’” Brand said. “You’re not going to find a great hotel and great whiskey bar like this in every city.”
Today, Morelen is an assistant professor in the psychology department at East Tennessee State University, and Brand is getting ready to open a new restaurant and bar called Timber! at 415 W. Walnut St. with his business partners Jacob Minkus and Kevin Masters, who is the food and beverage director at the Carnegie Hotel. The three co-owners plan to open the restaurant later this summer.
“This restaurant is casual and fun,” Brand said. Customers can come in after a long day mountain biking, dress up for a nice dinner, or hang out on the patio with their family and enjoy a drink, he said.
The space was previously occupied by the Acoustic Coffeehouse, a coffee shop and bar featuring live music that closed on Dec. 31, 2017.
“We loved the idea of the Acoustic Coffeehouse,” Brand said. “We just wanted to elevate it a little bit.”
Brand said the restaurant’s menu will focus on “American classics,” with vegan and vegetarian options, and will also serve beer, wine and cocktails. Timber! will also use as much local produce as possible, Brand said, with the goal of shining a spotlight on local Appalachian cuisine, a culinary vein that the restaurant hopes to ease into its offerings.
“I’m an outsider, so I’m new to all this stuff,” Brand said. “I just learned about soup beans last year.”
The restaurant is inspired by summer camps and national parks, and Brand said the name — Timber! — is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the many nearby tree-themed locales, including the Tree Streets neighborhood, which is a short walk from the restaurant, and West Walnut Street itself.
“Johnson City has really been trying to find its identity,” Brand said, referencing the recent effort by local governments and economic development organizations to find a unified brand for the region. “From our perspective, it’s a great outdoor town and we dug into that.”
Brand said he and his business partners want to make Timber! prestigious enough that it will attract people from around Johnson City and even Asheville.
“If we want to go out to a nice dinner or something, we drive to Asheville, and there are definitely great restaurants in Johnson City, but there’s not enough of them to keep us entertained all the time,” Brand said. “We want to keep that money here.”
Having grown up around Atlanta, Brand didn’t initially have strong connection with the Appalachian part of the South.
“I was skeptical at first but really started to fall in love with the products of this region and also felt like they were underrepresented in the national conversation about food,” Brand said.
Masters and Brand operated a pop-up breakfast and lunch restaurant called the Orchard Mason in Dos Gatos Coffee Bar from fall 2017 through spring 2018, an enterprise that acted in part as a test run for Timber!
The restaurant’s opening comes at a time when Johnson City is gearing up to invest significant time and money into revitalizing the Walnut Street corridor.
The Johnson City Board of Commissioners approved a corridor redevelopment plan for Walnut Street in January, which Johnson City Development Services Director Preston Mitchell said adopted the long-range plan for that area.
Mitchell said the city is working with a firm to manage the engineering and design phase of the project, which will encompass improvements to utilities and storm water infrastructure as well as the complete reconstruction of Walnut Street from University Parkway to Buffalo Street.
“What we certainly hope for is that this kind of public investment in the area will parlay into significant private investment in the years to come,” Mitchell said.
At this time, Mitchell said the city doesn’t yet have an anticipated timeframe for the roadwork.
“This is a long-range proposition, and we look forward to what can happen in this corridor between ETSU and downtown,” Mitchell said.
Brand said he looked at a lot of properties during the process of finding a location for the restaurant, but he kept coming back to Walnut Street.
“It’s a real honor to be one of the first businesses to open on Walnut Street as the city pushes for its redevelopment,” he said.