I took a reporter to Regas a while back and was flabbergasted when he said he’d never been there before. I don’t think I could have had a reporting or a business career if it had not been for Regas Restaurant. I’m only exaggerating a little.
In the 1980s, when I was a reporter for the Knoxville Journal (the daily paper — owned at the time by Gannett, which owns WBIR and USA Today), my editor and mentor, Ron McMahan, introduced me to Regas. It was “his” restaurant. He taught me that just by going there, you could learn things you could not learn anywhere else.
Regas was in its heyday at that time as a “power lunch” spot, as well as a special occasion spot. Here are some of the “regulars” at that time: former Sen. Howard Baker, Congressman Jimmy Duncan, County Executive Dwight Kessel, most city council members and county commissioners, most local state representatives and senators, Jim Haslam, Bill Sansom, Bill Baxter, John Waters, Craven Crowell, News Sentinel Editor Harry Moskos, all the downtown bankers, most of the important downtown lawyers, Chamber of Commerce executives and other major downtown business people.
You learned things by table-hopping — mostly speaking to people as you were led to your own table or when they passed your table coming or going from theirs. Folks would tell you all kinds of things just because they happened to see you. Or, you could figure things out by seeing who was eating lunch with whom.
But don’t think that the food was unimportant. The food at Regas was excellent. But, most importantly, it was consistent. Once you got to know the menu, you didn’t even need to waste time looking at it. You could place your order with the confidence that the food would be good — and exactly what you expected. No surprises. That was important. You wanted to be able to take guests to a place where you just wouldn’t have to worry about the food. Besides, while your guest was looking at the menu, you could be looking around to see what was going on!
And the atmosphere was perfect. Just formal enough — but definitely not stuffy. And either Bill Regas or his cousin, Gus Regas, would stroll through the restaurant greeting everybody. And maybe they would mention someone interesting who had been in in the past few days. That might be good for a story, too! I took many, many interview subjects there. The tables — especially the booths — were big enough to put a notebook on without making everything too crowded. And the excellent wait staff would not try to turn the tables on you. They let you stay as long as you wanted and just kept re-filling (in my case) the iced tea. I had an expense account at the paper. But really, eating at Regas at lunch wasn’t much more expensive than eating anywhere else. It just felt that way.
After I left the paper and went into the PR business — first with Ron and then on my own — Regas continued to be “my” restaurant. And mostly for the same reason — information gathering. And comfort. You could take anybody to Regas — and I did. Reporters, clients, politicians. Everyone loved it.
Ron had been a newspaper reporter himself before he became press secretary to Sen. Baker and then became editor of the The Journal, which he would eventually buy from Gannett. When he was in Washington, his favorite spot was The Monocle, an iconic Capital Hill bar and eatery, where he entertained the press and politicians and himself was entertained by lobbyists, which he would also eventually become after selling the Journal.
Here are some tips Ron gave me about making the best business use of Regas. But I think they could apply to any restaurant.
- At Regas, you wanted to sit in the Hearth Room, which was the main dining room. That was the best place to see and be seen. You can’t see who’s coming and going and mingling if you are in a back room.
- Take care of the hostess. Meaning give her a tip. Under Ron’s tutelage, I learned to do this at Christmas time by putting cash — a nice amount — into a Christmas card and personally giving her the card. I also sent her flowers — roses — on special occasions. It paid off. I could ALWAYS get in at Regas — I don’t care if it was UT graduation or Secretaries’ Day or Valentine’s Day. Hazel knew that those folks might be coming to Regas once a year. But I was coming three or four times a week.
- Pick a couple of really good servers and take care of them. Meaning, always ask for them and tip them generously. I had no problem with this. Having been a waitress myself during high school and college, I appreciate what a difficult and sometimes thankless job it can be.
- As I said before, choose a restaurant that consistently has good food, good service and a good atmosphere. And then make it “yours” with your repeat business.
When Bill Regas called me a few weeks ago and asked me to come to the restaurant, my heart sank. I had a feeling about what he was going to tell me. We have done some work for Regas over the years, and I knew that if the worst was going to happen, he’d probably want our company to handle the announcement. He picked a very private table for our lunch — not in the Hearth Room. And he told me to order and we’d have lunch before we talked about business. “Oh, you are using the kiss-kick approach,” I said to him. “You are going to kiss me with lunch before you kick me with bad news.” “Well,” he said with a quiet chuckle. “Don’t you want to be kissed first?”
Then he told me the plans. Regas will close on New Year’s Eve, which is tonight. I think I put it all in this press release I wrote (click here). The media coverage has been very kind, as it should be. I am incredibly sad to see Regas close. But, as a close friend of mine and Ron said this week, it’s time. Bill Regas is 82 years old. He deserves to retire while he is still in good health and can enjoy life. The physical plant at Regas needs many upgrades. To succeed, Regas would need a total re-launch after reinventing itself to more closely accommodate the more casual dining tastes of today’s customers.
To turn Regas around would take an investment of several hundred thousand dollars and a lot of time and energy. Maybe someone is up for that. I’d love it if they were.
But if not, I’m ready to say goodbye to Regas as I would to a special friend who had decided to move away to enjoy their retirement elsewhere. I am so grateful for the good times, the great business opportunities and the wonderful memories. Thank you.
For the News Sentinel’s coverage of the announcement that Regas will close, click here.
For information on Bill Regas being honored by UT this spring as an “Industry Legend,” click here.