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Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Chattanooga Mercantile owner Steve Watts stands with manger Rita Thomison on August 2, 2022. After several years in East Ridge, Chattanooga Mercantile moves to Cloud Springs Road, opening August 3rd.

In four years, Rita Thomison has gone from renting space at Chattanooga Mercantile to opening its successor business.

Thomison, the manager, and owner Steve Watts will open the doors Wednesday of Chattanooga Mercantile and Sweet Tea. The new antique mall is located in the Gateway Business Center, just south of the Georgia-Tennessee line at 4103 Cloud Springs Road.

Mercantile/Sweet Tea will be open from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Thomison said. Regular hours will be 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, she added, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

"I'm very excited," said Thomison, who said Watts eventually hired her to run the bakery at Mercantile's former location on Ringgold Road and, later, the entire business.

"This is a new start for us," she said in an interview Tuesday at the new location in Fort Oglethorpe. "We'll have a mix of everything – clothes, antique and new furniture, small items. Just about anything you want, we'll have it in here somewhere – and this building is clean and nice. It'll be an excellent experience for our customers and vendors."

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Chattanooga Mercantile and Sweet Tea

Jan Harless, who's bringing her Southwood Naturals business to the new location, said she's not the only vendor who shares Thomison's enthusiasm.

"Every vendor is terribly excited," she said. "It's a much nicer building. We'll probably get some interstate travelers here, and a lot from Chattanooga and North Georgia because it's so close to Costco.

"Vendors here have just gone above and beyond in the way they've built out their spaces – it's like little houses inside a big building. You feel you're in a little shopping village," Harless said.

Watts said Chattanooga Mercantile and Sweet Tea will house about 220 vendors in some 46,000 square feet. That is comparable to what he had at his previous location.

"This is a way to support 220 small businesses," said Watts, who added that he initially thought the new location, "down in a hole," would be a disadvantage.

"Then somebody showed me the restaurant next door," he said, "and I knew I was taking it."

Watts said that in a couple of weeks, that 3,000-square-foot space will be Sanctuary, where the menu will be an "homage" to his grandmothers' recipes. Thomison added that the restaurant will have tea rooms, as did its Ringgold Road predecessor, and "fabulous desserts."

Chattanooga Mercantile and Sweet Tea is starting with about 20 employees, Thomison said. She added that she's looking to hire more, but only individuals who prioritize customer service.

"We're working hard at hiring because if you want something and can't find it, we're going to come out from behind that register and walk the floor with you," she said. "We're not going to just sit back there and cash you out."

Watts said he moved his business because his relationship with his Ringgold Road landlord became untenable. He said he feels as though a "huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders" at the same time he's "getting ready to be a franchise."

Watts said he plans to open three new locations in the next 18 months – Knoxville Mercantile and Sweet Tea in early 2023, Nashville Mercantile and Sweet Tea a year from now and Atlanta Mercantile and Sweet Tea in early 2024.

"It's something I've always wanted to do," he said. "I work all the time anyway, so why not work and travel?"

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