James White Parkway rumbles busily nearby, just beyond a small lawn laden with tombstones: the morbid marketing for Island Home Monument Company. Across the street, a large empty field guarded by a barbed wire fence is all that remains of what was once one of Knoxville’s first public swimming pools. Looking around, it’s hard to believe that this is where Knoxville’s newest, most vibrant community is poised to spring up. But with the ground broken for the soon-coming Suttree Landing Park, nearby construction on upper scale apartments and condos progressing every day, and the headquarters of Regal Cinemas set to relocate less than a mile down river, there’s no denying that change is coming. The old is making way for the new here in South Knoxville, and the opening of Trailhead Beer Market is one of the first ready signs of this shift.
“The edge of [Suttree Landing Park] will be about 100 yards from here and the new G&O Trail will be right here along the railroad tracks,” says Kathy Wright, co-owner and co-founder of the Trailhead Beer Market. We’re sitting on a comfortable couch just inside the beer market, and Wright is vibrant and warm as she talks about her perfectly situated new business. “It’s exactly what I wanted it to be. That’s how I came up with the name ‘Trailhead,’ because we’re right at the head of the Urban Wilderness.”
Wright had been following the revitalization effort in South Knoxville for a few years and was excited to see the area built up through the establishment of the nearby Urban Wilderness and the expansion of Ijams Nature Center. But she had no idea that she’d end up being a major participant in the ongoing growth in this high-potential part of South Knoxville.
That is until she was driving a familiar route near the waterfront and saw a “for lease” sign in front of the old biker bar at the corner of Island Home and McCormick. “Honestly every time I passed this old building I thought, what a waste,” she says. “It’s so darling, and it’s in such a unique place.”
On a lark, she called and asked how much it was going for. “The guy that owned it had already gotten four offers,” Wright says, but the other interested parties just wanted to keep it a roughneck watering hole. “The owner asked me what I’d do with it, and I said that I’d like some sort of community gathering place.” As it turns out, that’s exactly what he wanted to hear. “He just said, ‘You can have it!’”
Wright was thrilled, but soon remembered she didn’t know anything about running a bar. Luckily her son was friends with Joe Jennings, a Knoxville barman about town. “I called Joe and asked if he would ever consider going in on this with me, and he jumped right in. The next thing we knew we were cleaning this filthy place up, painting it, and here we are.”
The building has seen a lot of life over the years, with its fair share of renovation and repurposing. “I still remember when this place was a barbershop, back in 1945,” says Ruby Gillespie, a longtime South Knoxville resident. “But I’m glad they’re doing something new.”
For a shopfront once fated to meet the same end as so many other old South Knox buildings, this has been quite the Cinderella story. And Kathy and Joe have been given a royal welcome to match.
“We’ve had fabulous feedback from the city,” Wright says. “They’re so exciting that we’re doing this, and the people in Island Home and in South Knoxville have been overwhelming in support of us. They’re so happy that we have this place. It’s just going to get better and better.”
But even with all the new life being breathed into the space, Wright and Jennings want to keep the old flavor makes the place great. “We’re hoping to apply for a facade grant next spring, but I don’t want to change the character of the building. I love the way it looks and I love the way it feels.”
Wright and Jennings plan to reciprocate the support they’ve received from the local community and already have plans to turn the upstairs into a community meeting space. “We haven’t even touched it yet, but come next spring we’d love to do hiking and outdoor presentations, or host people who want to demonstrate how to make craft beer,” she says. They’ve been in conversations with organizations like Ijams all along the way, and Wright wants the bar to feel like an extension of the great things already happening in this part of town.
So who does she expect to see pass through the doors of Trailhead?
“Definitely all the people who use the bike trails and the waterways, but also the people who live out here,” she says. “All the people who are clamoring to South Knoxville because it’s going to be the next place to live. So far we’ve had lots of families. Young people with young children. But we’ve had lots of older people come in as well. We’re really open to everybody.
“I want patrons to feel like Trailhead is theirs,” Wright continues. “Like it’s a community. Like they’re going to run into someone they know. Like Cheers, but for families. Joe is an amazing guy and he’s worked in the bar business in Knoxville for years. He’s a very popular young man—very good at what he does—and he remembers every name of every person.”
Trailhead Beer Market will serve a wide variety of craft beer, with about nine kinds on tap and 50 others canned or bottled. You can learn more about Trailhead Beer Market by visiting their Facebook page.