Video produced by Knoxville Weekend
Written by Susan Alexander
The Maker City helps smooth paths for today's small business owners
Mahasti Vafaie started her small business as most people do – with a big learning curve in front of her.
An engineer who wasn’t particularly happy with her career choice, she returned to school with the vision of becoming a doctor.
Then a 1990 trip to New Orleans with her mom led her in a new direction.
“I had been working as a waitress and managing some catering, and while I was in New Orleans I thought I’d come back (to Knoxville) and open a restaurant,” she said.
“I didn’t really have a vision when I opened it. I didn’t want ferns and brass, which is what we had in Knoxville at the time. Originally I wanted a French bistro, but the space that I found on Market Square had a pizza oven, and the landlord didn’t want to move it. I didn’t want to open a pizza place, but I thought about it over the weekend and leased the space from him.”
And with that, The Tomato Head was born, serving pizza only at lunchtime.
“I had never worked in a kitchen before. I had never made pizza dough before. But a friend helped me, and we created a menu. We made things and learned from our mistakes. I had a wonderful creative staff. Together, we figured it out.
“Initially our clientele was very small and focused. Whittle Communications was here then, and they were our core supporters. We were so different from any other restaurant in town. We didn’t have uniforms. We were just a bunch of hippies working.”
Market Square at the time was home to a few other restaurants and Watson’s department store and a lot of boarded-up buildings.
“Downtown died about 2 o’clock,” she said. “Then a friend said why don’t we open for dinner, so I bought dimmers for the lights and opened for dinner on a Friday night. And nobody came. On the fourth or fifth Friday, a couple showed up. And they said if we stayed open, they’d come back. Eventually, they started bringing their friends, and it got busier and busier. Gradually we had to add staff.”
“Market Square didn’t take off as a nighttime business for a very long time. Eventually, the renovations began and that really spurred redevelopment. Sundown in the City helped bring people in from west and north and south. It really helped the development.”
And as Market Square grew, so did The Tomato Head. The restaurant space expanded downtown and a second Tomato Head opened in West Knoxville. So did Flour Head Bakery, a Tomato Head spinoff that originally supplied baked goods for the restaurant. Now Flour Head products are sold at Three Rivers Market and Kroger in Bearden and to several local restaurants.
Now it’s Flour Head’s turn to grow. Mahasti purchased a building on North Central Street and plans to move the bakery there in about a year.
“We have somewhat outgrown our current space, and we’re in an industrial neighborhood (on Middlebrook Pike) and not able to have a retail spot there. We found this building and thought, why not? There’s plenty of room for retail space, so customers can have coffee and pastry and some lunch. And we hope to do a small-scale brewery to supply Tomato Head.”
The Tomato Head flourished long before The Maker City was a concept, but now Maker City programs are available to help other local small businesses – restaurants and food trucks, Etsy gift makers, skilled craftspeople and many more – get going or growing.
So, What is The Maker City?
The Maker City is a project of The City of Knoxville and the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center.
It operates on the principle that local makers know how to make their products but may need help running a business – learning about marketing or accounting or navigating city zoning restrictions.
Among its current initiatives are regular maker meetups, where Knoxville-area makers can connect; Make. Learn. Grow. lunchtime learning sessions, where someone will share his or her expertise in a wide variety of subjects; and the annual Maker City Summit, a daylong event that brings together experts in entrepreneurship from around the country to pass along inspiration and best practices.
Another Maker City project is an online directory that is being updated to include searchable profile pages for each maker member. The profiles include biographies of the businesses and images of makers’ products and processes, with the goal of raising awareness of the makers in the Knoxville area and the goods they make. The Maker City Directory makes it easier for consumers and retailers looking for handmade products to locate them and for contractors needing small-scale manufacturers and fabricators to find them.
“We have an explosion of modern makers – artists and craftspeople, digital entrepreneurs, coffee roasters and microbreweries,” said Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero. “These are really the leading edge of a new, small-scale creative manufacturing movement. A lot of them are moving into old industrial areas like the Creative Corridor on North Central Street, where Flour Head Bakery is building their new home. I am excited about the potential for new maker spaces to transform our older commercial zones in many parts of Knoxville.
"For example, we have an old building the city owns on McCalla Avenue in the Magnolia warehouse district. We are hoping to solicit proposals from local makers with ideas to use it for small-scale manufacturing. That would bring new investment and energy to an area that has seen a lot of disinvestment over the years."