Should restaurants close on Labor Day? In most parts of the city of Knoxville, the answer to that is no. Almost all the chain restaurants are open as are most of the locally owned places. I remember when one of our favorite restaurateurs, the late Kenny Siao, who owned Stir Fry Cafe and Mango and Cha Cha, used to close his places on Labor Day and Memorial Day, we thought it was weird.
But it’s not weird downtown.
Fully half the restaurants there were closed last Monday, which was Labor Day. And, ironically, it was a huge day for visitors downtown.
With the first UT home football game on Saturday, Boomsday on Sunday and Labor Day on Monday, a big crowd was on the streets and sidewalks. Mighty Musical Monday, the monthly free organ concert at the Tennessee Theatre, was packed. One attendee said more than 1,000 people were inside the 1,500-seat venue. And guess what. Before they went there and after they left, they were looking for something to eat.
On Market Square, Latitude 35, Tomato Head, Cafe Four, Market Square Kitchen, Shono’s in City, Cocoa Moon and several others were shut down when we visited at 2:30 p.m. on Labor Day. On Gay Street, Bistro at the Bijou and the S&W Grand, both relatively large restaurants, also were shut.
This put extreme pressure on the restaurants that were open. “We are slammed,” said the guy at the door of La Costa. “We are a disaster right now. I can’t tell you when you can get a table because I don’t want to mislead you. I’d rather put food in your mouth than my foot in mine!”
At Trio, a casual cafe where you go through a line to order and then sit at a table to eat, scores of folks were standing around inside the front door and just outside on the Square. The problem: no tables. “I don’t know how long it will be,” said a harried woman busing tables.
At Oodles Uncorked, another large eatery, there was a 45-minute wait — at 2:30 in the afternoon! We opted to drink a Miller Lite and wait in the bar. But, I have to tell you, we discussed getting into our car and driving west to find a place to eat. That’s not good.
The retailers were frustrated. Scott Schimmel and Lisa Sorensen, the married couple who own Bliss and Bliss Home on Market Square, also were waiting at Oodles. “We are very busy,” said Schimmel, about his retail shops. “And we really want people to have a good time when they come downtown. They are in our shops today and buying things. But when they ask us where they should go to eat, we don’t know what to tell them. It’s really a shame.”
John Craig, who heads up the Market Square District Association, said his group sent a message last week to restaurants telling them what a huge crowd had been downtown on Monday seeking places to eat. “We can’t tell them they have to open,” Craig said later. “Each makes its own individual judgment. But we sent out the message because, if they were closed, they might not know what kind of opportunity they missed. They might be making judgments based on how things were in the past.”
Craig said the same thing happened on New Year’s Eve.
Schimmel said in an interview later in the week that many folks don’t realize how much downtown has changed. “The reality is that people come downtown seven days a week now,” he said. “Holidays are fantastic for us. Fourth of July was great. New Year’s was fantastic.” Schimmel said his stores only close three days a year: Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Schimmel said several years ago he suggested the businesses downtown adopt “core hours.” But he was met with great resistance. “Let’s just say they were less than enthusiastic,” he chuckled. “People said, ‘We chose not to be in a mall because we didn’t want people dictating to us.’ So I dropped it.”
Some of the restaurants were closed for various reasons last Monday. A Latitude 35 manager said the restaurant opened at 4 on Labor Day, just as it does every Monday. An S&W Grand manager said they were closed for a wedding on Labor Day.
But some say they just believe in closing on Labor Day and will continue the practice. Martha Boggs, the owner of Bistro at the Bijou (one of my personal favorite eateries, by the way), was adamant about it, saying, “That holiday is for people that work — it’s Labor Day! We blue collar types deserve a holiday!” When asked where the blue collar types might go to eat if the restaurants are closed, she quickly replied: “You cook out with your family! That’s where you eat!” Boggs added, “A lot of people don’t want to miss a day of business, but I just think it’s important to give my employees a day off.”
Lori Klonaris, one of the owners of Cafe Four on Market Square, agreed. “We are open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she said. “Closing on Labor Day is our way of saying thanks to our employees.” Klonaris said Cafe Four rented Two Rivers Pavilion on the river off Topside Drive and treated its workers to food and drinks on Labor Day. “We play games, frisbee and volleyball,” she said. “This is our second year doing that and we plan to continue.”
On the other hand, Stewart Richarson, a manager at Oodles, said that restaurant thanks its employees by staying open and letting them make money. “Our owner, Jim West, is adamant about us being open as often as we can,” he said. “Usually, we’ll be open when most places are closed. When it snowed this past winter, we were the only place open.”
He said employees appreciate it. “A lot of the people who work here don’t mind foregoing a portion of a holiday weekend so they can make some money — that’s what we’re all here for. We are really good about covering for each other to get the shifts filled.”
He said Oodles feels an obligation to its customers to stay open on holidays like the Fourth of July and Labor Day. “People appreciate us being open,” he said. “And we appreciate their business.”
Adrienne Knight, of Trio Cafe, described her restaurant as a “war zone” on Labor Day because of the huge crush of customers. “We’re always open on holidays,” she said. “We’d love it for all the restaurants to be open. Can you imagine being a visitor to Knoxville and coming downtown and finding the Square closed? We live downtown. We want to generate traffic downtown.”
So, what do you think? Should downtown restaurants be open on holidays?