Knoxville’s Oldest Black-Owned Restaurant Makes A Triumphant Return

One of Knoxville’s community treasures has been restored! Magnolia Cafe has been a pillar to the Tennessee city, but like many Black-owned businesses in America, it simply could not sustain the aftermath of the pandemic. However, neighborhood leaders had other plans.

The historic house known as Magnolia Cafe opened its doors in 1999, and it is believed to be Knoxville’s oldest Black-owned restaurant, operating in the same place under the same name, Knox News reports. When it fell into disrepair following the global pandemic that began in 2020, Rep. Sam McKenzie and business owner Frank Shanklin took matters into their own hands, going directly to the owners with a proposal not only to buy the property but reopen it under the same name.

“I frequented here before I got involved in it,” said Shanklin, the owner of Shanklin & Sons Flooring just down the street. “It was the gathering place. This was the place where you left all your troubles outside; you came in here and had a good time. When it closed due to COVID, I don’t think people realized what the void was.”

Now, that void has been filled, complete with a menu of fan favorites, including pork chops and fish sandwiches, burgers, and sides to die for. Moreover, Magnolia Cafe regulars wait outside for doors to open and often stay into the wee hours of the night for good eats, socializing, and showing off dance moves.

Before becoming its new owner, McKenzie took his Austin-East High School photos at the home, once a photo studio, followed by a restaurant owned by historic Knoxville figure Robert Kirk, the first Black professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

“Having that sense of belonging has been really fulfilling for me,” McKenzie said. “It’s just an opportunity for us to be a small part in bringing this community back.”

While it took some time, McKenzie and Shanklin convinced the previous Magnolia Cafe owners, Anthony Kimbro and Bobby Flemmings, that they could carry the torch of the beloved company’s legacy into the future.

When doors aren’t open for business, the cafe doubles as an event space for everything from birthday parties to anniversaries, funeral repasts, and beyond. It continues to serve a purpose much greater than being a local restaurant, with the new owners even developing a new tradition, a wall dedicated to historically Black colleges and universities. After McKenzie, a graduate of Fisk University in Nashville, and Shanklin, whose alma mater is Knoxville College, hung their school’s pennants on the wall of the cafe’s bar, other customers wanted to do the same.

Flags from HBCUs like Florida A&M University and Howard University are also up for display, and a flag-raising ceremony is held during Magnolia Cafe’s dinner service each time a new school makes the wall. 

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