Chances are, you’ve been to one of Jim and Lori Klonaris’ restaurants as part of some celebratory occasion – an anniversary, a birthday, a promotion. It might have been a long-overdue night out with friends or last-minute date night with someone special. Whatever the occasion, the Klonarises know the role they play in Knoxville, and they have no plans to change direction.
“With my college degree in Fine Arts, focusing on architecture and interior design, I’m not an IQ guy. I’m a heavy EQ guy – emotional quotient. My lane has always been vision on the front end. It’s always me who wants to open a new place, and she’s never said no. I’m the idea guy and risk taker, while she’s risk averse,” says Jim. “Once the place is open, I hand her the keys and walk out the door. I get almost all the credit, but it should all go to her. She’s the magic in the operation. Together, it’s a perfect recipe.”
The couple met in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Lori ran a diner and Jim worked in sales for Coca-Cola. Both college graduates – Lori from the University of Iowa and Jim from the University of Tennessee – the couple met on a blind date, had instant chemistry, and got engaged ten days later. They married in 1987, moved to Des Moines and then Knoxville, where Jim had spent his formative years. Both were energized by the hospitality business. They knew it was a shared path for them, but it would take time to sort out their individual roles and realize one another’s professional strengths.
“I opened Sidestreet Tavern on Homberg, which wasn’t a risk because I was betting on myself. Once you’ve been in the business and know the margins, and if you’re doing a good job and producing good food and great service, you’re going to be successful. Operations is where I shine,” said Lori. “But I found out three months later that I was pregnant.”
The Klonarises had three kids in three years, so they sold the restaurant and focused on other means of income. Jim still worked for Coca-Cola and Lori worked at night for a commercial cleaning business, something she did for more than a decade. By 1998, they returned to the restaurant industry and opened Kalamata Kitchen in Farragut, a place that showcased their shared love for Mediterranean cuisine (he is Greek, she is Lebanese). Despite its initial success, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
“It was in a shopping center beneath Farragut Middle School, so when Turkey Creek opened, we felt it. That and 9/11 was awful for business,” says Lori. “We were young and dumb, so we didn’t expect hard times. We just expanded to a second location in 2001, so we’d over-extended ourselves. It was the perfect storm and we had to declare bankruptcy. We had to start over.”
As a mother, Lori was terrified, raising three kids with a constant fear in the pit of her stomach. On one hand, she knew it would be okay, but climbing back up that hill was going to take a lot of work.
“I think in some ways it was good for us because success came early and easy, and when that happens, you take it for granted. For our kids, it was good to see their parents have to work hard and rebuild,” says Lori.
Betting on Downtown
By 2007, the couple had poured their energy into a commercial cleaning company and wanted to re-enter the restaurant business. They were approached by a group who was interested in rebuilding the downtown area, specifically Market Square. By now, the kids were in high school, so it felt like a good time to take a chance. Café 4 opened and was a quick success, despite the financial crisis that unfolded the following year. It was yet another obstacle no one saw coming, and yet the Klonarises ran Café 4 for 13 years and only sold it in 2021.
They opened Kefi in Old City in 2018, which was a nod to Kalamata Kitchen featuring Mediterranean small plates full of color and flavor. They also opened an event space in 2018 called The Press Room, having already established another event space – the Square Room – behind Café 4. These ventures were built under their umbrella company, Spaces in the City, and by 2019, the Klonarises had their eyes on their next venture in the historic Holston National Bank building at 531 S. Gay Street.
Of course, on track with their journey thus far, it wouldn’t be without complications.
“We bought the building on January 10, 2020, and then Lori was diagnosed with cancer in February, and then there was this rumor about Covid,” says Jim. “We owned the building and had to make a payment every month, you know? What do we do?”
“Looking back, it didn’t seem like a big deal, but in March, we didn’t know the severity of the situation,” says Lori. “We had a meeting at the bank and had no idea what was going to happen.”
What happened is they put their heads down and went to work. Lori’s cancer treatments were a success, and construction continued amid the pandemic. Vida, a Pan-Latin restaurant, and The Vault, a cocktail lounge literally built into old basement bank vaults, opened exactly one year and two days after purchasing the building.
“It’s hard but we just get it done. We don’t procrastinate. We have a ridiculous work ethic,” says Jim. “We’ve probably taken a handful of vacations. I worked for Coca-Cola for 14 years and then as a consultant for FranklinCovey for 16 years. I only retired from there three years ago.”
Jim pauses thoughtfully, then continues.
“The word is grit. The reality is that most people, and I mean the far majority, when they hit roadblocks or disasters, they stop. I’ve always said it’s not if you fail, it’s when you fail. Everyone fails. It’s about how you get up off the floor and continue. That’s grit. Some people quit an inch away from success.”
The Klonarises expanded to Blount County last year and opened Bella, a cozy, Tuscan-inspired restaurant in downtown Maryville that was Lori’s vision from start to finish. They also have City Catering, which is connected to both event spaces and run entirely by their son, John Demetrios. Little by little, they’ve turned their passions into ideas and their ideas into spaces where people can celebrate special occasions, make memories with their loved ones, and enjoy some of the best food Knoxville – and now Maryville – has to offer.
For other people, the endeavor to build a restaurant business might have ended after 9/11, a bankruptcy, a national financial crisis, a cancer diagnosis, a global pandemic, or any other unforeseen event that life can throw one’s way. For the Klonarises, those were just problems to solve or work around. It all goes back to vision and grit.
“I tend to see a building and something about it attracts me. It’s not every building, but sometimes I see it like no one else could. I can see a finished space. So, the first thing I do is go to Lori and say I found this building and I think we can get it. Then I bring Lori in and I paint a picture, walk her through everything. Then Lori creates the concept, the food. So, she saw this space and says, ‘This is a Pan-Latin cuisine,’ and we just knew. Vida isn’t like anything else in Tennessee,” says Jim. “Kefi was like that. It just felt like you were somewhere else.”
Whatever the concept, whatever the cuisine, they do not hold back. Nothing is done halfway. It is either exactly what they want or not at all, and it’s this drive for perfection that yields success. That, and a deep love and respect for their hometown.
There is more to come from the Klonarises. In fact, the framework for their newest project is already underway, and construction will be happening soon in Old City, right across the street from Kefi. (Visit ExcelsiorKnoxville.com to learn more.)
“As a couple, we love our community. We love creating spaces where people can gather and have great conversations, friendships, anniversaries … We love raising the bar in Knoxville. We think more people should open more restaurants and cool spaces and make them better than our spaces because that raises the bar for everyone,” says Jim. “We want to continue to be a place where visitors and locals can come and enjoy. That’s the most important.”
The Vault offers a Reserve Membership for regulars who want VIP status for special events, priority access for hosting private dinners, and exclusive access to allocated spirits. Visit TheVaultKnoxville.com/The-Reserve for more information.