Twenty years ago, Erik Niel toured a vacant building in Chattanooga, Tenn. owned by his father, a commercial real estate investor and property manager. Niel and his dad had a certain affinity for the sprawling historic space, which nearly a century ago housed one of the world’s first Coca-Cola bottling plants.
Years later, after graduating from both the University of Texas and culinary school, Niel returned to find that although most of the building had been occupied, the former bottling plant wing was still available. He felt the space had something special and decided to move to Chattanooga and open a restaurant called Easy Bistro.
The history of Coca-Cola and Chattanooga is a storied one that began nearly a century earlier. In 1899, two young attorneys from believed they could build a business around bottling Coca-Cola. In a meeting with Coca-Cola Chief Asa Candler, Benjamin F. Thomas and Joseph B. Whitehead obtained exclusive rights to bottle Coca-Cola – which until then had been sold exclusively as a fountain drink – across most of the United States for the sum of one dollar. A third Chattanooga lawyer, John T. Lupton, soon joined their venture and began to develop what is today the global Coca-Cola bottling system.
The first bottling plant under the new contract opened in Chattanooga in 1899, and a second began operation in Atlanta the following year. By then, realizing they could not raise enough capital to build bottling operations nationwide, Thomas, Whitehead and Lupton decided to seek outside capital. They divided the country into territories and sold bottling rights to local entrepreneurs. By 1909, nearly 400 Coca-Cola bottling plants were operating, most of them family-owned businesses.
The first Chattanooga bottling facility was located at 17 Market Street and then moved into the center of downtown on Broad Street before moving to its current facility in the 1970s. To this day, the city credits much of its prosperity to Coca-Cola, which created jobs and funded landmarks like the Tennessee Aquarium (from the Lyndhurst foundation and Jack Lupton, John's grandson), and creating scholarships like the Coca-Cola Centennial Scholarship.
Knowing the city's history with Coca-Cola and the draw of this particular building, Niel knew he had to let the space – which was very ornate, modern and art deco for its time – dictate the design of his restaurant.
“People thought differently back then,” Niel said. “They put money into a building so it could be a centerpiece of something, a fabric of the community.”
The building’s exterior featured beautiful cast iron lamps. Inside, high ceilings and tile floors added touches of grandeur. Niel’s wife, Amanda, a designer, changed as little as possible about the interior. They did, however, paint the lightly colored walls and white ceiling black to create a cozier, more intimate feel. For the rest of the design features they added, they were cognizant of making sure they stayed true to the time period when Coca-Cola called it home. The result is a welcoming restaurant that resonates across time periods and doesn't feel dated.
Niel's cuisine throws back to the old world French — with bistro and brasserie classics — think steak frites, mussels and oysters. Although the menu has morphed over the years, Niel keeps those classic dishes on the menu for his regulars and those who just want simple, good food.
Easy Bistro serves Coca-Cola products, bottled of course, with a few signature twists. A fun wake-me-up concoction called the Daywalker –made with Coca-Cola from Mexico, espresso, lime and sugar – is a brunch favorite.
“It's fun to feel the history of the place," say Niel. “We often have people popping by who are descendants of those who worked at the original plant. They share great stories and just solidify how much of an impact Coca-Cola has had on Chattanooga."