By Kerri Young
The Tennessee Grill
1128 Taraval St.
Currently offering a limited menu for take-out.
The Tennessee Grill has been a staple in the Parkside for 67 years, where regulars have flocked to its laid-back diner space for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Known for its comfort food and satisfying portions, you will find a diverse menu ranging from American diner classics like eggs and bacon, to pasta and Burmese Tea Leaf Salad. We recently spoke to owner Kyaw Soe, who has worked at the Grill since 1998, about the restaurant and how the business is adapting during the pandemic. We are happy to note that Mr. Soe was also open to helping the business join the Legacy Business Registry, a distinction for which the Tennessee Grill certainly qualifies. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A look inside the Tennessee Grill, before the Covid-19 pandemic. The restaurant is temporarily open only for take-out.
How would you describe your business for those that aren’t familiar with it?
It’s an American diner. It’s an old diner, open since 1953, and it’s never shut down since then. I love this business.
The Grill has an eclectic menu with items that people might be surprised about, like Burmese Tea Leaf Salad. Tell us more about the influences for the menu over the years.
I created a Burmese Tea Leaf Salad, and also dishes like Chicken Curry. These items weren’t on the menu with the previous ownership. Right now the pandemic is on, so I’ve had to cut some menu items. But I have kept the Tea Leaf Salad on the menu, and people like it. So we have American diner food, but we also have things like Teriyaki Salmon…I introduced it [to the menu] because I like it! I thought why not try it in my restaurant, because people might like it. I already had a different version of salmon on the menu, so I just created a new sauce and put it over rice, and people like it! So we have items like Tea Leaf Salad and Salmon Teriyaki in addition to traditional American diner food.
How long have you owned the business, and what is your history with Tennessee Grill?
The first time I arrived in the US was in 1998, and this was the first job I worked since I arrived. I became the owner in 2017. Min was the previous owner, and we were partners before she retired. Before Min was Lou (of the “Lou’s Special” that is currently on the menu). I liked it [becoming the owner], because I knew the customers, I knew the employees, and the menu. I had waited on tables, cooked, so most of the job I have now [as the owner] I had already done before.
The Tennessee Grill has been in business since the 1953. How does it feel to run something that has served the Parkside community for so long?
It’s honorable to be that business here [in the Parkside]. It’s kind of like a landmark of this district, so I’m really proud that I took it over and am running the business. Most of our regular customers have been coming since I came here!
Tell us more about the Grill’s regular customers.
Many have been coming for several decades. Most of the regular customers, they don’t change what they eat much. They have about 5-6 items they rotate between. New customers will come in and check out new items on the menu, but existing customers know what they want and we know what to make for them. We have kept the same quality of food over the years, is what some of our regulars say…some customers come from San Bruno, some from the Richmond, all over really! But most are from around here [in the Parkside].
How have you navigated the Covid-19 crisis as a small business owner?
This pandemic? Right now I notice that small businesses are struggling. We’ve never faced this situation before in the history of the Tennessee Grill…so I try my best to keep holding on to the business. The one thing I didn’t want to do is cut the hours of some of my employees, but I had to do it.
And my restaurant is not prepared for take-out, it’s all about the dine-in experience. But now, after 3-4 months, we started to realize how to make take out work. I believe other dine-in restaurants are struggling with this too. We haven’t cut menu items, just limited the menu for take-out. Some items are not good for takeout, like corned beef and cabbage, which is really heavy. I used to make it once a week, but I can’t do that anymore because it’s not good for takeout, it’s not good to eat in the box. But I’ll do it again when this is all over.
How can people support your business at this time? What do you need most from the community right now?
If they can support local businesses as much as they can it would be really nice, but they have to stay safe too. Be healthy and be safe and be smart first, and then they can support local business…The other day I went over to the Cliff House, and on the beach there were a lot of people gathered and many were not wearing masks, and that’s not good…wear a mask, and everyone should listen to the guidelines and follow that advice. That’s my suggestion, it has nothing to do with my business but that’s what I see. So stay safe first and then support my business.
News of developing a vaccine has been hopeful…but we’re not going back to normal right away. We will have to work hard for a few more years to get back to normal. Our business won’t be same after this experience [in the pandemic], but we will work towards making it normal again.