Sherene Jacobs, owner of Perk City, East Knoxville’s first (at least newest) coffee shop, is not easily deterred, and she’s crazy about her chosen part of town. Here’s a sample of what she has to say about her neighborhood:
“I’ve lived all over the United States – north, south, east and west – and I’ll tell you this: the nicest people I’ve ever found are in East Knoxville.”
Her love affair with East Knoxville began in 2016 when her daughter, September Max, decided to buy a house on Woodbine Avenue. Sherene and her husband, Bob Jacobs, helped her get moved in. They were living in the Gibbs community at the time, and while driving back and forth, Sherene noticed a for-sale sign in front of a big, fancy bungalow on Fifth Avenue. She persuaded Bob to take a look, and when she walked in the door, “that was my house.”
The house was in foreclosure, and someone else had gotten a full-price bid in ahead of them. But it fell through, and in January 2017, the 102-year-old house was theirs for a fraction of the original asking price. The original plan was to fix it up, flip it and go back to Gibbs.
“The first day we moved in, people were welcoming us to the neighborhood. Another neighbor came over with bottles of wine,” she said. “We’ve been here ever since, and Huh-uh. We are not moving. This is home.”
She believes that her end of town has traditionally gotten the short end of the stick from local government, and that’s something she aims to change. Not alone, of course, but she’s not waiting around, either, and she issues fair warning:
“Yeah, I think we’ve gotten a raw deal. We’re like ‘The Forgotten.’ Maybe they throw us a scrap here and there and hope we’ll be satisfied. Well, I’m a Taurus, and I’m kind of territorial, and it’s become mine now.”
Perk City occupies a building at 3229 East Magnolia on the corner of Magnolia and Beaman Street next door to the Chilhowee Park entrance that formerly housed a smoky succession of beer and barbecue joints. Today it’s a bright, sunny space filled with the aroma of coffee and the fresh baked goods that Jacobs and September make every day. (The cinnamon-spiked Incredibites are not to be missed.) September is a Starbucks-trained barista and a UT graduate student.
It didn’t take the Jacobses long to get involved in the Chilhowee Park Neighborhood Association, and Sherene eventually became president. Soon, she was attending meetings about revitalizing the Burlington business district, and was impressed by the powerhouse women she met there. Over the years, she and her husband and daughter had talked about opening a coffee shop, and she considered doing it in Burlington, but was spooked by the cost of renting. So she started looking closer to home. Literally.
She checked out a building next to the Pizza Palace on the other side of Magnolia, but settled on the old Tennessee Tavern/Jarman’s BBQ building a stone’s throw from her house, even though she figured there would be problems, since previous proprietors had taken a casual attitude toward city regulations.
One inspector warned her that she was going to “pay for the sins of the people before you.”
And boy, howdy, did she. She was forced to install that bête noir of public eateries, a grease trap, even though her coffee house wouldn’t be cooking with grease.
“That was $1,700 and I don’t have any grease,” she said. “And it’s going to cost me $150 a month to have it pumped out. ‘It’s a requirement,’ they told me.”
Then she found out that she had to produce an architectural drawing:
“I drew it up nice and pretty, even used color, and they said no,” she said, laughing. “My contractor got somebody to do it who was not licensed, and finally I had to get a licensed architect and a licensed engineer. Finding an architect for a small business – that’s a joke.
“I was told that turning a nightclub into a coffee shop was a change of venue, plus a bunch of new codes came in. Every time I turned around, there were new codes.”
Parking has been an issue, too. Even though previous occupants had ample parking in front of the building, the Magnolia side now is limited to a single handicapped spot and a generous space for a bicycle rack. A large, rocky drainage basin of dubious utility eats up a chunk of the east side of the front lot. There is ample parking on the hill out back and across the street.
Sherene is considering writing a cautionary handbook for novice business owners, but mostly, she’s glad to finally be a position to serve her community. The “Cheers” sign behind the counter signals that it’s everybody’s place. (Note: she says she got help and guidance from city officials Dawn Michelle Foster and Ken McMahan and former city COO Eddie Mannis).
The building’s seating capacity is 58, and although Perk City closes at 4, Sherene is more than willing to open it up in the evening to accommodate community meetings and special events.
“After all, I just live a half-block away.”
Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.