Doing the Right ThingWhen Dan Rose and Max Poppel came to Chattanooga, they did not set out to build a full-service bar and restaurant that would quickly become one of the most popular haunts in town. Their original vision was basically a chill hangout for visiting rock climbers, the details for which were unclear. But as unclear as their vision might have been, after even a brief conversation, it doesn’t take long to understand their philosophy: If something seems like the right thing, let’s find a way a way to do it. The result is a showcase for local artists and craftspeople, and a model for community collaboration called The Flying Squirrel Bar—known by locals as simply “The Squirrel.”
Originally inspired by a campground and pizza place in the Red River Gorge, Rose and Poppel were convinced that as a world-class destination for climbers, Chattanooga needed a social hub for evenings off the rocks. They didn’t know what such a hub might look like, but they knew what it would feel like. “We looked at woodsy places out of town, but after a year of talking about it, we realized that downtown was the place to be,” says Rose. And it didn’t take them long to zero-in on the buzzing Southside. “The climbing is out there, but downtown is what makes this place so special,” he says. “That is why we came.”
Their vision pretty quickly narrowed to the form of a hostel, The Crash Pad—a place with a living room where folks could buy a drink and relax. When they learned that in order to sell alcohol they would have to have some seventy-five seats and a certain percentage of sales coming from food, Poppel and Rose realized that a living room was not going to fit the bill, and The Flying Squirrel Bar was born. “A full-service restaurant just made sense, and allowed for a big overload of locals, hostelers, and other travelers.” Folks staying in hostels can fall into the trap of only interacting with fellow travelers, but a bar in a cool part of town bursts the bubble and opens them up to the greater community. Even with the vision expanded beyond lodging to include a full-service bar and restaurant, Rose never anticipated its scale. “We were always saying ‘we’re building a little neighborhood bar.’ I don’t know what the hell happened. We got together with a designer and some artists and it suddenly got big and complicated.”
Getting “together with artists” is the perfect description of how The Flying Squirrel came together. Part of the problem, says Rose, was that “we never had a concept.” The design grew organically from everyone’s ideas—the result of an evolution of thought peppered by a lot of creative people—a community effort. All they knew is that they wanted what Rose calls a “third place.” “You have home, you have work,” he says. “This is the third place.”
A visit with the Lyndhurst Foundation led to one handshake after another, and eventually they met architect Blythe Bailey. As the handshakes continued, he says they met one creative type after another. Chattanooga was buzzing with renaissance thinking when they began the process, and at that time a lot of the new young artists and thinkers were still finding their feet. Rose calls that time, “the perfect storm of all the right people.” The creation of The Crash Pad and The Flying Squirrel was an opportunity to bring in a host of great minds while they were still hungry and not yet in huge demand. He saw the project as a chance to showcase all the great talent he was discovering in the still nebulous art community. Since Rose and Poppel were unencumbered by a clear “big idea,” a community of creative thinkers were able to float all their own ideas, and as long it stayed within a certain budget, the two entrepreneurs were game.
Rose says they knew they wanted to build green but had no idea all that involved. However, sustainability and repurposing are evident in all aspects of the design and development. For example, architect Thomas Palmer utilized the footprint of a previously existing building, as well as the bricks salvaged from its demolition. Now, everywhere you look on the property, you can find the vision and handiwork of the Chattanooga art scene, because, as Rose says, “It seemed like the right thing to do.”
Additionally, when they first began designing the site, the intersection of Johnson and Baldwin Streets was known as “Lake Niedlov’s” every time it rained, so they had to work with the city to deal with storm water runoff. The city suggested that perhaps a permeable surface could be used instead of drains, so that rainwater would seep into the water table instead of running off into the river. When Rose and Poppel heard this, it sounded like the right thing to do, so they asked if they could surface the whole street that way, rather than just the intersection. The two quickly found that as long as they were able to provide constructive ideas with examples, the city was more than happy to work with them. No curbs? Sure, but you need bollards. Can we design them? Sure, here are the specs. That street project ended up winning a Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award.
“We have had a very good experience working with the city. We have off the wall ideas, but when we get in front of real people to talk about it, we always manage to work it out. We have never been stonewalled. But we never ask for crazy s#!t, we just want to do this thing right.”
Similarly, sourcing food locally seemed like the right thing to do. “But, again, we didn’t know what that meant in the context of trying to run a kitchen.”
Fortunately, they found folks like Thomas Persinger at the Harvested Here Food Hub who made connecting with local farm products easy. “It was a no-brainer,” says Rose, who added that they can’t source everything on the menu that way, but as long as they maintain a balance, they are able to work a lot of local produce and other food products into the mix and keep it sustainable. And of course artisanal staples are conveniently located at neighboring Niedlov’s Bakery, Main Street Meats, and Velo Coffee on the Southside.
As if supporting local artists, farms, and artisans isn’t enough, every Thursday night is Industry Night at The Flying Squirrel, during which those working in local hospitality are invited in and treated like an employee with deep discounts. They also regularly host local not-for-profits—supporting initiatives ranging from after-school programs to conservation. On those nights, 10% of total sales are donated to the designated cause and on occasion, in partnership with the Lamp Post Group those percentages are generously matched.
A little bit funky, a little bit eclectic, and uniquely Chattanooga, The Flying Squirrel Bar, along with its companion The Crash Pad, are proving that doing the right thing is a recipe for very delicious success!