A few weeks ago, we brought you the news that the City Café was changing ownership after 27 years with Jerry Cunningham at the helm.
It had been bought by Frank Reeves, Mark Price, Rob Day and Jason Burns. This week, we checked back in with the café and its new owners, to see what had changed and what hadn’t at the local institution.
A little after 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, three of the City Café’s four new owners were in the restaurant alongside the customers shuffling in for an early dinner.
Frank Reeves was one of them, sitting at a corner table enjoying his meat-n-three, prepared by the same staff that made the food when Cunningham owned the place.
Jason Burns, another owner, sat nearby alongside the café’s new manager, John Bailey.
Burns made it clear that the food is pretty much the same, although there have been some additions to the menu.
“We’ve increased our desserts,” Burns said.
“Yeah, he’s increased his dessert consumption,” Bailey said, joking and pointing to the serving of banana pudding on Reeves’s plate.
“Obviously we like to have a little bit of fun,” Burns said, laughing.
Burns, Reeves and the other owner present, Rob Day, do indeed seem to be enjoying themselves as they continue to get their new venture under way. Although they’ve altered some things about the City Café’s appearance—taking down paintings and putting up black and white images of prominent American cities — the main changes to the menu have been in the form of added items. It’s a daunting task to take over a restaurant with such a loyal following, but Burns, Reeves, and Day are happy with how it’s gone so far. And they’ve got much more planned for the future.
Even more importantly, they think the customers are happy, too.
“What I’m most pleased about is we’re seeing all the same old fans,” Day said. “[Cunningham’s] existing clientele seems to be happy. They like the changes we made, but like that we didn’t make too many changes.”
That balance — change, but not too much — is the main challenge and the main opportunity for the new owners.
As mentioned above, visitors to the City Café will find all of their old favorites on the food line. The mashed potatoes, the turkey and dressing, the liver and onions. They will also, however, find some new foods to choose from.
The biggest change food-wise has been the City Café’s absorption of the menu of the owners’ other food venture, Banjo’s Food Truck.
In addition to the regular items in the food line, diners now have the option of ordering off of the Banjo’s menu at the City Cafe. The effect of this is that the City Café now serves the local item whose popularity has swept the country in recent years: Nashville hot chicken. That, ordered with waffles, already has become a big hit at the restaurant, Day said.
Burns also described how the City Café is now featuring an entrée of the day, in addition to the regular items. Smoked chicken and barbecue ribs are two recent examples of those. A new carving station featuring California Tri-tip steak has quickly proven to be popular, Day said.
“We were gonna try different meats but we have been selling out of it every day,” Day said.
The new owners kept on all of the staff who worked under Cunningham. They have made some new hires, though, including a dedicated baker. As a result, customers can expect some additions to the dessert offerings at City Café, like Oreo Dream Cupcakes, which were featured on Tuesday.
One aspect of the restaurant that is also different has to do with entertainment. While conversation still seems to the main activity besides eating going on at the City Café, there is now a stage with a keyboard and a stool on it where the cash register used to be. That’s because the City Café now offers live music a couple of nights a week, usually after 6 p.m. or so, Day said.
“Nothing too crazy. We’re not bringing heavy metal in,” Day joked.
Initially, the new ownership team had plans to make additional changes to the City Café right away. Some of those changes, like staying open later at night and not closing between lunch and dinner, are still planned for the future, but Burns said that the owners found it was better to stick with the way things had been for a while.
“We realized very quickly that settling in and getting used to what [Cunningham] did well for so many years is more valuable than trying to extend hours immediately and do more,” Burns said.
Some other changes are currently under consideration, including offering breakfast. Day said that customers who come in in the next few weeks might be asked to sample some possible breakfast offerings.
City Café is also in the process of getting public Wi-Fi set up so that people can browse the Internet or get a little business done while they eat.
The biggest plan that the partners have under way involves the opening of a second City Café location in Cool Springs, hopefully in the next six months, Burns said. That location will be part of a complex that will also include a more upscale dinner restaurant and a speakeasy-type bar. The idea is that people in the area, whether they’re wearing business suits or gym shorts, will be able to find a place to eat at this new spot. The site for this new complex will be next to Franklin Fieldhouse, Day said.
The purchasing of the City Café and the plans to open a new location would have been unbelievable to Day a year ago. The owner of a financial firm, Day is the only partner not to have an extensive restaurant background. His family started the Banjo’s food truck for fun last October and it just took off. Then the opportunity to buy City Café came along, and it all just seemed so perfect.
“I had no plans of doing this. If you asked me last year this would have been nowhere on my radar,” Day said. “God’s just orchestrated it all.”
To keep up to date with what’s going on at the City Café, visit the restaurant’s Facebook page.