Editor’s note: This is reprinted with permission from writer Shannon Kelley. Fountain City Diner closed for good on Aug. 19, 2019.
Fountain City Diner:
I’ve been wanting to write something about this special place for weeks, but I’ve been putting it off. Writing about it makes it real and I, like so many others, have been in mourning. I’ve struggled with this and it’s sort of a mess. Please forgive me. I’m tired, the hour is late, my fingers are large and the keys are small.
I was angry when I first heard they were closing and the reason why. Filled with rage from top to bottom. I had to let the anger subside before I could go in. It took me about a week.
I’ve been dreading the end ever since.
Tomorrow, they’ll flip the closed sign to OPEN for the last time at 11 a.m.
I’m not ready.
It’s both a real loss for the community and the end of one family’s dream. Victims of a drastic rent increase that would appear was intended to run them out. The recent real estate activity on that corner has resulted in the destruction of Dr. John Tumblin’s Optometry Practice, with all of the resultant consequences, and now the demise of the Fountain City Diner. That’s a heavy toll for our little corner of the world.
It’s not illegal and I don’t know enough to touch on the morality or ethics of the situation, so I won’t. Still there’s a wrongness to it. Just a very real ugliness. Maybe it’s just the harsh reality of someone doing with their property what they want or maybe it’s the way it was handled.
I certainly hope the rumors that it’ll be replaced with a liquor store are wrong. We already have four within a two-mile radius. Surely that’s enough. If it is true, I wonder in which of the nine banks within a one-mile radius they’ll deposit their money?
Let’s move on to happier things.
Ten years ago, Dennis and Penny Wagner, with their kids, Matthew and Daisy, took a leap of faith and opened the Fountain City Diner at the very crossroads of that end of Fountain City. They offered a selection of food that you don’t see offered at restaurants anymore. The chance of failure was high and I don’t think anyone realized it would join Pratt’s Market as an anchor at that intersection.
According to the Small Business Administration, they had a 20 percent chance of failing their first year and a 50 percent chance they’d be gone by their fifth year of business. The Wagner family made it 10 years. That’s an incredible run for an independent restaurant.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t living on this end of town when they opened. My sister’s family lives nearby and I think they became semi-regulars right out of the gate. My first visit was after some family event. My youngest nephew’s musical at Gresham perhaps? I recall lots of family squeezed in around the big table nearest the bathrooms. I ate a huge banana split and we all sang with the background music so much that the server got annoyed.
My second visit, my oldest niece, Sarah, saw me driving by and called me back to have dinner with her and my sister. Our server was Stevie. It was my first dinner there and I really enjoyed it. (Later, that would become a semi-regular event. Someone would see me driving by or see my truck in the parking lot and call me. Will you eat with us or can I eat with you? It’s happened a dozen times or more).
It became our family’s go to place for birthdays, after graduations or school events, after funerals, nephews and nieces plays and choir performances and occasionally just getting together to eat. I still hadn’t made the leap to becoming a regular yet.
Then I got sick. I would have a surgery then stay with my mom while I recuperated. I couldn’t drive, so I had her take me to the Diner to eat breakfast. I went back for dinner. It became a twice daily ritual as I healed. Once I was back home and could drive, I’d go myself. It started to become more of a habit. Through multiple surgeries with multiple stays at moms, the Diner became my place to get some friendly social interaction, good food and to heal up. I was hooked. That was a little over five years ago.
I discovered pretty much everything was good to great. Some I even put in the category as the best. Best Salisbury Steak. Best fries. Best chef salad. Best mushroom, beef and barley soup. Best chicken and rice soup. I eat out pretty much every meal, so I would check their web page daily to see what the specials were (I would even check it when I wasn’t going. I like to know the path not taken). I was usually there two or three times a week. Sometimes, I would grab a piece of chocolate pie to go and take it to my mom’s house and split it with her.
Sitting at a crossroads, it actually became a crossroads just like Pratt’s Market. You’d often run into people you knew. I’ve ran into former classmates from 30 years ago, former fellow church goers, salesmen I’ve dealt with through work, a former college friend from MTSU (now an attorney) from 20 years ago, my daddy’s doctor when he died, a favorite English teacher from high school, and Betty Bean, the prominent journalist and my Facebook friend. Many Fountain Citians tend to stay around the area and most eventually passed through the Diner at some point.
This week has seemed like the last days. The decor is gone. It’s very odd. It feels like going through your grandmother’s house for the last time, after it’s finally been emptied and sold. Penny has been standing her post at the counter. She serves as the greeter as they come in and then becomes the Hugger-in-Chief as she comforts them when they go out. Dennis pops out of the kitchen ever so often and dispenses smiles and thanks.
This past Saturday’s breakfast was slammed as usual. Parking lot overflowing and people standing at the door and waiting for a table. I noticed the group of Catholics that would always come after Mass was few in number. Have they given up already? I know several people that can’t bear to come inside. I came back later and bought carry out for dinner. Extra soup for the fridge too.
Now, some last words.
The Wagners should be proud of what they built. It isn’t just a restaurant. It’s a dream fulfilled. A dream that we were fortunate enough to share for a decade. A unique Fountain City institution that will still reside in our hearts long after the closed sign gets flipped over for that last time at closing tomorrow night or whenever the food runs out.
To Dennis, Penny, Daisy and Matthew. You gave us something truly wonderful.
We love you and we’ll miss you. 😢