As I was saying, I’ve written here before about loving the idea of regional specialties, and recipes that you just can’t find all over the country. I also love small regional chains that you can’t find at home. In this respect, Knoxville is one of my absolute favorite places to spot small-market fast food, particularly on a stretch of Kingston Pike where Papermill Road dead-ends. From there, of course you can see the omnipresent McDonald’s, but you can also see a Mr. Gatti’s, a Sawyer’s, a Denton’s, a Wishbones, a Calhoun’s, a doughnut place whose name escapes me, and the wonderful Petro’s Chili and Chips, which has been serving its amped-up Frito pies for almost thirty years. Some of these places have made their way to other cities – Nashville has a Calhoun’s and a Petro’s, and Mr. Gatti’s, a pizza buffet place, is actually in several states – but none have made it to Georgia yet. In a country where the national chains have all the attention, this little stretch of road delights me.
That’s not to say that many of these places are all that amazing taken on their own merits. Sawyer’s does the same thing that Guthrie’s and Zaxby’s do, and Denton’s Volunteer-themed “Big Orange” drink is an awful lot like an Orange Julius. I doubt that Denton’s can claim any historic first; their building is, not fooling anybody, an old Checker’s. Yet they are different, and therefore, neat and delightful. I wonder whether Knoxvillians are aware of just how unique this little stretch of road is. I don’t know of another place at all like it.
Petro’s is the only one that provides a truly unique fast food experience. Apparently, a local entrepreneur got a contract to serve these cups of chili over chips at the Knoxville World’s Fair, held with much hoopla in the city in 1982. The fair’s ostensible theme was energy, hence the name of the product. I say “ostensible” having wasted an hour in line for that dull Mexican exhibit wishing I could have seen more of that giant Rubik’s Cube elsewhere in the fair. Anyway, a Petro is extremely good chili, served with tomatoes, cheese, onions and sour cream atop either Frito’s corn chips or noodles.
Since moving from a carnival stand to mall food courts, a couple of freestanding restaurants and a place somewhere in Neyland Stadium, Petro’s has expanded their menu to include hot dogs, loaded baked potatoes and a really neat side of cucumbers and onions, marinated in a little dressing of mayo and vinegar. This isn’t haute cuisine, but it’s so darn tasty, especially with a tall cup of their special “hint of orange” tea. About half the trips I’ve made to Knoxville, I’ve come home with a gallon of that. The other half of the trips have been on a Sunday, when their convenient location on this stretch of Kingston Pike is closed.
A few years back, I filled out a comment card and posted it back to Petro’s headquarters. They asked for suggestions and I urged them to open in Atlanta. They were good enough to write back and apologize, because that wasn’t then in the works. Surprisingly, this seems to be set to change. This past weekend, we stopped by for a snack and a gallon of tea. My daughter hadn’t enjoyed her lunch and so, after an hour or so perusing the used books and CDs over at McKay, we came by for she and I to split a large Petro. We were greeted at the door by a sparkling corporate sign announcing a search for new management teams because Petro’s is growing and needs YOUR help. You know the sort of signage that I’m talking about. It’s usually an indicator that the website’s redesigned and the “F.A.Q.” section is now exclusively built around questions that potential investors might consider.
I chatted with the fellow behind the counter and confirmed that Petro’s has finally decided to get aggressive about expanding and franchising. If successful, I can imagine, in time, this turning the chain into something of a disappointing bore, but maybe they can do it right and keep the chili tasting good. Then again, Marie got her first taste of Petro’s in Nashville back in 2007. There’s only one Petro’s in that city, in the food court at Rivergate Mall, where we met up with the kids’ mother for one of our “prisoner exchanges” seeing the kids off with her for a couple of weeks. Marie had heard me raving about Petro’s for the better part of the year, and the chili at that food court location was, sadly, distinctly unimpressive.
Nonetheless, I enjoy the food so much that I told the young man behind the register that I hoped they opened some stores in Atlanta. He said that he’s heard that they’re hoping to open a location in Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Well, that’s not even remotely convenient, and it might not serve up better chili than on Kingston Pike, and having stores here at all will cost this stretch of road its unique and charming character… but all things considered, I like this tea and the chili so much that I wish them the very best of luck with their expansion. After all, The Simpsons taught us that all the Sun Sphere is good for anymore is storing wigs; it might be nice to hear about a real success story coming out of the ’82 World’s Fair.