Big River Grille closes downtown Chattanooga location after 30 years

One of Tennessee’s first brewpubs closes just months after neighboring sports bar shut down

Staff Photo by Dave Flessner / Workers clear out food and other inventory at the Big River Grille on Broad Street, which closed Monday after 30 years of operation in downtown Chattanooga.
Staff Photo by Dave Flessner / Workers clear out food and other inventory at the Big River Grille on Broad Street, which closed Monday after 30 years of operation in downtown Chattanooga.

Note: This story was updated at 9:52 to correct the spelling of Tim Hennen's last name.

One of Tennessee's first brew pubs has closed after operating for more than 30 years in downtown Chattanooga.

Big River Grille & Brewing Works, which first opened in 1993 in the former car barns in the 200 block of Broad Street, closed its doors for the last time Sunday night.

SPB Hospitality, the Houston-based restaurant chain that owns Big River, still has another year on its lease for nearly 10,000 square feet of space in the 133-year-old building at 222 Broad Street, according to Tim Hennen, whose real estate group still owns the structure. But SPB Hospitality began moving out merchandise Monday after what company officials said was a decline in business at the downtown tavern.

"We have made the difficult decision to close our Chattanooga location of Big River Grille due to shifting traffic patterns in the area," Ryan Russell, director of communications and marketing for SPB Hospitality, said in a statement Monday. "We tried every avenue possible to avoid closure but ultimately could not continue to operate."

Big River Grille also closed its other local restaurant near Hamilton Place mall in July 2022 after 16 years of operation. SPB Hospitality closed its Old Chicago restaurant at Hamilton Place last year, blaming inadequate sales coming out of the pandemic.

Russell said the lone remaining Big River Grille in Orlando, Florida, "will continue to operate as usual."

(READ MORE: Mountain City Club to weigh offer to buy downtown Chattanooga property)

The closing of the downtown Big River Grille a block from the Tennessee Aquarium comes five months after the Walk-On's sports bar adjacent to the restaurant also shut down suddenly after operating for about a year and a half. Despite the shutdown of the two anchor tenants in the former car barns on Broad Street, Hennen said he is still optimistic about the building and the riverfront area where he also operates Hennen's restaurant in the next block.

"We had the best year ever last year at Hennen's, and I think with the changes coming in the future being planned by River City Co. and the city, that this part of downtown is still a very vibrant market," Hennen said in a phone interview Monday.

Thai Smile still operates a restaurant in the former car barns building, and Hennen said he has leased part of the vacated building space to the Chattanooga Escape Room, which plans to relocate downtown from a location on Rossville Avenue.

"We have another tenant coming in the future, but I can't say who it is yet," Hennen said. "I think this end of town is getting ready for a tremendous rebound, and we're talking with different people right now about a lot of different options."

Hennen said the addition of the Embassy Suites hotel at Broad and Fourth streets and the potential of a new Drury hotel in the former Sportsbarn a block away should bring hundreds of more visitors to the area every day.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga's Sportsbarn selling East Brainerd site to group also planning downtown center)

Hennen started Yesterday's on Patten Parkway in 1973 and worked with partners Allen Corey, Rob Gentry and Jon Kinsey to open Big River Grille in 1993 as the second brew pub in the state of Tennessee. Hennen said he sold his interest in Big River Grille in 1999. He also helped start Bones Smokehouse and added Hennen's in 2005.

SPB Hospitality, which is headquartered in Houston, owns several restaurant chains across the country, including J. Alexander's, Logan's Roadhouse, Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery, ChopHouse & Brewery and Redlands Grill. The equity group SPB acquired the restaurants after a series of restaurant mergers and acquisitions of Big River and other restaurant brands once owned by Chattanooga-based CraftWorks Holdings, which moved to Nashville in 2019.

CraftWorks traces its roots to Big River in 1993, and six years later the company acquired Gordon Biersch. Rock Bottom Restaurants, founded in 1976, merged with Gordon Biersch in 2010 to become CraftWorks. CraftWorks became a top operator and franchisor of brewery- and craft beer-focused casual dining restaurants, with more than 200 restaurants in 40 states. It once employed more than 10,000 people.

In an email statement, Russell said SPB is "grateful for the memories and experiences we have shared together, and we will always cherish the relationships we have built with the local community" in Chattanooga at the Big River Grille.

"We wish to express our sincere gratitude to our loyal guests who have supported us over the years at this location," he said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

  photo  Staff Photo by Dave Flessner / Big River Grille, at 222 Broad St. in downtown Chattanooga, has operated in the former trolley car barn building since it first opened in 1993. SPB Hospitality, the Houston-based equity group that now owns Big River Grille, closed the last of its Chattanooga locations on Monday.
 
 


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