After 25 years, a challenging business environment and a requirement to comply with EPA regulations could spell doom for an iconic Knoxville, Tennessee eatery.
Egyptian natives Mo and Seham Girgis had been in Knoxville about 10 years, working at various restaurants and hotels, when they took a chance on their own American dream: owning a restaurant.
The tiny cinder-block building they bought in 1993 already was an institution, Dot’s Grill. Dot Brown opened the diner in 1952. In 1961, she sold it, but in 1970 she bought it back and later operated it with her children and her sisters. By 1992, however, she was ready to retire for good.
Knoxville was ready for more ethnic and vegetarian options. But, the Girgises weren’t sure at first, so they made sure their menu included Southern staples like fried okra, chicken and country steak.
“For those people who are hard to change, we kept American food on the menu,” Seham said — but at every visit, she might offer them a taste of baba ganoush, which is an eggplant-based dip, or basboosa, a sweet semolina and honey dessert. Most customers began to order Egyptian food as well.
Though both can cook, Seham made most of the food and Mo entertained customers — at lunchtime with stories and chess games, at dinner with disco lights, karaoke, wild hats, masks, and party props. The restaurant, with an assortment of humorous signs and fun paraphernalia tacked to the walls, gained a reputation for a quirky place to party while getting food cooked to order that was worth the wait. Many nights, it was at capacity. For several years, Seham hired staff to help.
Over time, they made improvements to the building. This included adding equipment, lighting, more seating, a tile floor, and with the help of a 2010 Empowerment Zone grant from the city, updating the exterior.
Seham said the decline in business began with the two-year closure of the Henley Bridge in 2011, for $24.7 million in repairs. The bridge was the main route connecting South Knoxville with other parts of the city.
Immediately, “we started seeing a deterioration of our business around here,” Seham said. “And it wasn’t just us — a lot of businesses in South Knoxville saw the same effect. … Maybe people didn’t want to make the detour around, going to other areas to get to us.”
For two years, the Girgises rode out the drought, hoping that the 2013 reopening of the bridge would bring customers back. When it didn’t, Christina helped Seham try more modern approaches: a Facebook page, Groupons, accepting credit cards.
Still, business tapered over the years. Though Seham loved the old — and new — “regulars” who kept coming, their business alone wasn’t enough to sustain the restaurant. She stopped serving breakfast, started closing on Sundays. And still, many nights the disco lights were dark, the karaoke machine silent and the grill cold.
The final straw, she said, came in fall: a requirement by Knoxville Utilities Board (KUB) to add a grease interceptor, which could cost $25,000 or more.
In 2004, KUB entered into a consent decree with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state, the city of Knoxville and the Tennessee Clean Water Network. That order required KUB to minimize, and eventually eliminate, sanitary sewer overflows or be fined.
Since then, KUB has upgraded wastewater treatment and storage and cleans 200 miles of line a year, said Kevin Keaton, assistant manager of Safety and Regulatory Services at KUB.
KUB spokesman Randy O’Neal said that, over the past 14 years, various KUB programs have resulted in a 79 percent reduction in sanitary sewer overflows.
But the utility’s Grease Control Program, which started in 2005, has made the biggest difference by far, Keaton said.
“One of the primary causes of sanitary sewer overflow is grease blockages that come from food facilities,” he said. The interceptors “keep grease from entering into the collection system.”
KUB began requiring new restaurants to install grease interceptors before they opened, and older restaurants to add them. The interceptors, installed between the restaurants and the sewers, slow the flow of water out so that grease has time to cool and solidify, then captures grease on its way to the sewer and stores it in a tank, which has to be pumped out periodically.
The size of the tank KUB requires depends on the size and location of the restaurant, the types of food it serves, and the number of dishwashers, fryers, floor drains and other items in its kitchen.
Though technically restaurants have been required to switch over since the program began — and owners have to sign a paper every two years that says they understand the requirements — KUB began enforcement with larger restaurants that generated more grease.
With those in compliance, it’s now focusing on “lower-risk” restaurants like King Tut Grill, Keaton said, which don’t generate as much waste.
Seham currently has a three-compartment sink in her kitchen with a grease trap underneath, which she and Mo empty. But Keaton said such grease traps still allow grease — especially while hot — to flow into the sewer.
KUB said Seham has to add a 1,500-gallon interceptor. She’s gotten estimates ranging from around $15,000 to more than $30,000 for the device, which has to be professionally installed. Once in place, it will have to be emptied by a professional — likely quarterly — at a cost of a few hundred dollars each time.
Seham asked if she could get a larger grease trap instead, which would cost less and not need professional maintenance. To be in compliance using a grease trap alone, however, she would have to remove her commercial dishwasher, double oven and other appliances.
Neither, she said, is an option for her.
Seham misunderstood her deadline for having the interceptor installed and had been telling her customers she’d be closing in early March. But March 9th is actually her deadline for submitting a plan of corrective action to KUB.
Keaton said KUB gives restaurants time to get the required equipment, especially smaller businesses who need to spread the cost out. He did allow that 18 months has typically been the maximum.
“We really want to be consistent and fair with all of our customers,” he said. “We value our customers, and one of the steps that’s critical is getting them a corrective action plan and making a proposal to KUB so we can sit down and talk and determine.”
Seham had already been to her bank to apply for a loan for the interceptor but said her business hasn’t been profitable enough to qualify her. She looked at the possibility of making the restaurant a coffeehouse that served only beverages and desserts but said KUB said she would still need an interceptor. She thought about other possible uses for the building, which she owns.
She decided she’d need to look for other work. Mo already is working for a local hotel, though he returns to King Tut Grill in the evenings.
Seham saw no point in submitting an action plan to KUB.
“There’s no way I can afford that,” she said and began preparing to say good-bye.
But, a regular customer, Levi Duhon, began brainstorming solutions. Duhon set up a GoFundMe account on behalf of Seham and said he would help her submit a corrective action plan to KUB.
“Seham is such a hard-working, wholesome person I couldn’t imagine her losing her livelihood and having to find another job not doing what she loves,” said Duhon, who said the Girgises have become “family” to him.
When Seham learned of the account, she was at first overcome, then touched.
“It made me feel good, that the community cared enough” to donate just so she could stay open, she said.
She knows it’s unlikely the fund will raise enough money for a grease interceptor, but she’s willing to wait a little longer before making her final decision.
Meanwhile, she’ll continue cooking for those who come to say good-bye — or hello.
“I don’t know, really, what else I would do,” Seham said. “This restaurant is what keeps me going.”
If you’d like to prevent problems with clean water regulations, consider installing The Drain Strainer. Invented by a former restaurant owner, The Drain Strainer is an effective and affordable commercial garbage disposal alternative. It also protects your grease traps from being clogged by food solids while still allowing your sinks to drain quickly.