When Veterans Day rolled around yesterday, dozens of local and chain restaurants and other businesses offered special deals for military veterans. But Sam Tobea, owner of the Round Up Restaurant in South Haven, had already quietly paid his tribute.
Tobea donated a traditional breakfast – scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, biscuits and gravy – for 100 to the new monthly veterans’ breakfast at Pathways Church in South Knoxville. It was just the latest generous donation to the community by Tobea, who has owned the Round Up for 19-plus years.
In October, Tobea not only provided peach and apple cobbler for the Knoxville SOUP micro-funding dinner, but he also cooked several hundred hamburgers and hot dogs and supplied four tubs of ice cream for the National Night Out event held jointly by Dogwood Elementary School, Southwood Apartments and the Lindbergh Forest and South Haven neighborhood associations. He says having the event near the restaurant took some of the stress off, but the humid, muggy weather made cooking on a seven-foot grill an ordeal.
“The temperature was unbelievable,” he says. “But everyone had a good time. Kids, parents, they had a lot of fun. A fire truck and police cars came for the event. Everybody was happy.”
Tobea has supported Knoxville SOUP from its beginning in 2015, when his was the first restaurant to donate soup. At recent SOUP events, he has become the go-to food supplier – filling in any gaps on the menu. He tells the group, “If you need anything, come back to me.”
For the November veterans breakfast, the third such event, he and his crew arrived at work early so they could get the breakfast ready for pickup by 7:30 a.m. The timing coordinated well with the restaurant’s breakfast service, he says.
The Round Up, 3643 Sevierville Pike, has a strong base of regular customers, including an expanding group of neighbors who have moved to South Knoxville to be close to the Urban Wilderness.
“South Knoxville is really growing,” he says.
The restaurant also sees multiple generations of families gather at its tables and booths. It’s known for its home-style meals – comfort food in a comfy setting. Diners know what to expect.
Favorite menu items include meatloaf, Philly cheesesteaks, chicken and dumplings, and Angus beef hamburgers. The latter is Tobea’s favorite; he says he puts “everything” on it – including bacon. (The 59-year-old makes time to go to the gym twice a week, and he also swims.)
“There’s a taco place across the street from me,” Tobea says, “so people, they know. If they want to eat tacos, they will not come to the Round Up; they will go to the SoKno Taco. If they want to eat, like, meatloaf, this is where they come. We have almost the same menu for the last 20 years.
“We might add a few things to try, and if I see it’s selling good, I keep it.”
(Coincidentally, SoKno Taco provided food for the veterans breakfast for its first two months and has also become a SOUP patron.)
The Round Up opened as a restaurant in 1972, Tobea says. “Before that, it was a grocery store and an ice cream parlor.”
The original building dates back to 1941. Tobea bought the restaurant 19 years ago from Eddie Smith, whose parents had started it and who had been leasing it to Mark Manis for five years when Smith and his family decided to get out of the business.
“I kept all the old recipes,” Tobea says with a chuckle.
Tobea remodeled the whole kitchen. “That’s one of the reasons they wanted to sell, because they didn’t want to upgrade the whole system,” he says.
The building had gas for heat but not for the kitchen equipment.
“They had an electric stove that would take 40 minutes to heat up,” he says, so he converted to gas, which is much faster.
Tobea had been in the restaurant business for several years (he was a co-owner in Nixon’s Deli, which grew to six locations), so he was well versed in kitchen equipment and operations. He redid the wiring and brought everything up to code.
Tobea admits that he did hold off on renovating the public restroom but after a couple of years realized he needed to update it.
“If somebody wanted to go to the bathroom, they had to go through the stockroom,” he says. He ended up installing two accessible restrooms.
One piece of the old equipment he has left alone is the ice cream freezer.
“It’s maybe 40 years old. Still works, though.”
Born in Iraq to an Iraqi father and Lebanese mother, Tobea met his wife, Maha, when they were at university together in Iraq. Tobea’s father had gone to college in Michigan, so Tobea moved there first before relocating his family to Knoxville in 1992.
No one else has followed him into the business. His wife of 33 years owned an alterations shop for a time, and their son is a doctor and their daughter a nurse-practitioner.
But the restaurant has become part of his family.
“It’s hard work, but we (like to) see the good results and see people are happy coming. We try to get the most value for the people’s money.”
He appreciates his small and loyal core crew.
“We are all getting a little older,” he says, but he knows he can count on them. He hasn’t had as much luck hiring younger employees.
“The young generation want to stay on the phone,” he says, hesitating as he utters some “OK, millennial” shade.
Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor who particularly enjoys spotlighting South Knoxville.