A Story of Families, Food and a Fussy Frog
Frussie’s owner Jay Brandon admits, “It takes a special kind of crazy person to come make bread every morning.” He’s speaking about himself, but the story of Frussie’s doesn’t begin with Jay Brandon. It begins with James W. Dicks, Jay’s mentor and friend.
James opened Frussie’s Deli in Gatlinburg in 1986. He referred to the deli as a “sandwich speakeasy” – only advertised by word of mouth. In 1996, he moved to South Knoxville. That’s when Jay’s part of the story begins. At the invite of a friend, Jay ventured into Frussie’s and began what would become a love affair with food – specifically, Frussie’s food… more specifically, the Italian Sub with a side of Potato Salad.
Jay worked in the medical field at the time, but a fortuitous win at a silent auction provided him with the opportunity to work as Chef for a Day alongside well known Knoxville Chef Bruce Bogartz at Harry’s. Harry’s, a Regas family restaurant, peaked Jay’s interest in the restaurant business, so he offered to work there… for free. After 2 months, Jay was offered a job. After 2 years, Jay decided it was time to get serious.
Jay moved to NYC to attend culinary school and, while there, interned with Chef Anne Burrell of Food Network fame. After graduation, he returned to Knoxville and began working at Cherokee Country Club, but an opportunity too good to pass up took him to St. Croix. Jay put his freshly honed culinary skills to work in St. Croix for a few years, but Knoxville and a wedding (his own) called him home.
In 2008, a tanking economy left a bad taste in Jay’s mouth, so he took a hiatus from the food industry and turned to landscaping instead. For three years, Jay operated his own company – making sure he kept one South Knoxville client on the list, just so he had an excuse to eat at Frussie’s. But it wasn’t simply about the food. “James and I sat and talked while we waited for the bread to rise.”
Those conversations came into play in 2011 when Jay and his wife found out they had their own bun in the oven. The need for year-long work became real. It was time to pay a visit to James, who was now battling cancer. The deli had been closed for a few months. Jay offered to take over and re-open – if James would teach him everything he knew.
James took Jay up on the offer and for 2 months they worked side by side – from 5am until James got tired. Frussie’s re-opened in November 2011. James worked alongside Jay for the first two days. He passed away in March. James wife, “Sam”, says those months gave James purpose and, in turn, extended his life. Jay stayed at the South Knoxville location for 4 years before deciding to move to downtown Knoxville. He opened the current location on Gay Street in July 2015. Jay wondered if James would have approved of the move until Sam revealed that James himself had dreamed of moving the deli to Market Square.
Living the Dream
Ask Jay today if he’s living the dream and he’ll tell you, “Some days. You never know what a day will bring – or who might burn the cookies, but making bread is therapeutic. Bread is temperamental – different every day. It’s an art really.”
“You put your heart and soul into a restaurant – shopping, picking out and picking up just the right ingredients.” Places like the Market Square Farmers Market just a few blocks over make that a little easier from May-November. It’s important to note that everything at Frussie’s – produce, meat, flour, etc. is USA grown and made. And although you will find some new items on the menu, James’ classics are still there – just as he taught Jay to make them.
Will Jay train someone the way James trained him? Maybe.
“My goal is to fill the restaurant 3 times over for lunch every day… for 20 years… and put my kid through college.”
So what’s the lesson here?
“If you want to own a restaurant you’d better love food and cooking.”
And he does. Jay has eaten a half a sandwich every day for 5 years (a full one makes him want to take a nap). “My selfishness of not being able to eat Frussie’s every day is what made me do this. Besides that, there would have been an empty spot in Knoxville.”
Frussie’s Deli is open 6 days a week (closed Sundays) but it’s a 7 day a week job. That’s what you get with house made sides, house cured meats and 11 types of bread made from scratch every day. But like the guy before him, Jay wouldn’t have it any other way.
And oh yeah, about that fussy frog…
James liked to keep frogs as pets. One was particularly fussy. A fussy frog. Frussie.