Restaurateurs who own eateries on busy Cumberland Avenue in Knoxville, Tenn., adjacent to the University of Tennessee campus, are upset over two new restaurants that opened this past fall on campus property. At least one merchant has suggested that frayed town-gown relations could lead to a class-action lawsuit against the university.
The restaurant owners are upset over Raising Cane’s and Panda Express, two fast-food joints opened by Aramark, the university’s foodservice provider, in a building at the corner of 17th Street and Cumberland Avenue. The merchants argue that the two units, in addition to creating more competition for the existing restaurants, have an unfair advantage over off-campus units.
“We consider our relationship with the university to be a mutually beneficial partnership,” says Jonah Riggs, owner of the Copper Cellar restaurant and a member of the Cumberland Avenue Merchants Association. “But recent events are making the partnership extremely one-sided, benefiting the university but not the longtime merchants who serve the student population.”
Riggs says he considers it unfair for the university to purchase an off-campus building and then “lease out their building to competitors. If Copper Cellar wanted to open up in the middle of campus, we couldn’t do that.”
Jeff Maples, UT’s senior associate vice chancellor for finance and administration, disputes Riggs’ assertion, saying that the building is on the northern fringe of campus.
“Long-term, we plan on putting an academic building on that site,” Maples explains. “But that is 20 or 30 years down the road. In the meantime, it’s a single-story building that is great for retail, for students who live on that end of campus. It just happens to be on Cumberland Avenue.”
Riggs and other merchants counter that Panda Express and Raising Cane’s are able to accept non-student customers because they front on the street.
“The university already has dorms to feed their business,” Riggs says. “Why lure in community traffic to take away from the Cumberland district?”
Rob Wynkoop, who owns the Gyrene Burger Co., agrees.
“Those restaurants open to the street,” Wynkoop says. “It’s not like they’re in the lobby of a dormitory.”
Both men add that the situation is only going to get worse when a multi million-dollar reconstruction project this summer tears up Cumberland Avenue and all but eliminates vehicle traffic. “We’re going to need all the foot traffic we can get,” says Riggs.
Maples says he is not unsympathetic to the plight of the local merchants, noting that “If I were in their shoes I would have those same concerns.” He says the university is currently working on a plan that would allow off-campus merchants to accept the VolCard, which not only serves as a student ID but also functions as a declining balance card. Pointing out that the legal paperwork involved is time-consuming, Maples says that the program will be set up sometime this year, but he couldn’t be more specific.
The VolCard isn’t what the merchants want, however; Wynkoop says he doesn’t believe that students keep much money on the VolCard, and Riggs says the VolCard solution “does not create the level playing field we small businesses require.”
What they have asked for is access to Dining Dollars, a program available to all students on a meal plan. The program is administered by Aramark. Maples says discussion of the use of Dining Dollars by off-campus merchants is off the table.
“Dining Dollars are proprietary to Aramark,” says Maples. Our agreement with Aramark provided for them to make major improvements to our campus dining facilities. Those funds [from Dining Dollars] help pay for those improvements.”
At present, one Cumberland Avenue restaurant, Papa John’s, accepts Dining Dollars. Maples says that is the result of a “long-term agreement” Aramark has with the franchisee.
But Wynkoop, who says he has met with Aramark officials to discuss the situation, takes that agreement as proof that Cumberland Avenue merchants could be given access to Dining Dollars.
“Dining Dollars belongs to Aramark,” he says. “It’s an Aramark decision.” Aramark did not respond to requests for comment.
For now, the Cumberland Avenue Merchants Association is counting on student pressure to sway university opinion. CAMA has set up an online petition called “Free Our Food UTK” that it is asking students to sign.
Wynkoop thinks the next step may be litigation. He says he has “talked with several attorneys who think we have a case.”
“Nobody’s trying to get rich here,” he adds. “We’re just asking for justice and equity.”