Creating and Continuing the Legacy of Knoxville’s Favorite Lunch Spot

Everyone loves The Lunchbox! Everything Knoxville is honored to share the history, guiding principles, and the exciting future of this beloved lunch spot that celebrates its 40th Anniversary in 2021. We were delighted to meet founder Karen Sproles recently and asked her to tell us how it all began.

Here is Karen’s story:

In 1979, I found myself a single mom with two young daughters and had to come to grips with how I was going to support us. I have a degree in math education, but after a year of teaching, realized that it was not my joy or calling. Growing up in Wisconsin, surrounded by the influence of my grandmother and mother – the best natural cooks ever – caring for people with food had become a part of me. Foodservice was a natural – but how? I had no formal training, just instincts.

There were very few restaurants in downtown Knoxville in 1980 and a large workforce of daytime-only professionals and office staff. Committed to being available for my children, I thought if I opened a small, lunch-only restaurant, I could be home on weekends and when they got home from school.

I stumbled across a little building (across from the City County building) where the owners were very receptive to the idea of a restaurant. After readying the space, we printed 1,000 flyers to announce our concept and opening date and then delivered them to the offices within walking distance. Bringing pots and pans from home, having seating for only 24, no dishwasher or prep space, and three employees, we launched on June 7, 1981. We set a goal for sales on day one and exceeded it – running out of everything!

Two weeks after opening, I met my future husband, Don Sproles. He endeared himself to my daughters and often showed up at The Lunchbox on Sunday afternoons when we were trying to get a jump on food for the week. Before long he was rolling up his sleeves and taking over at the cash register. We were married July 3, 1982, choosing that day so we’d have a three-day weekend for a “honeymoon.”

In 1985, we expanded the building to 45 seats and later moved to our dream space (in one weekend and didn’t miss a day!) in the First Tennessee Plaza.

With more than half of our business as take-out, we then established a central kitchen and Market/Café on Center Park Drive in the mid-1990s. This allowed us to prepare and deliver fresh food every day to our locations around town while enabling our customers to serve themselves – to eat in, to take back to their offices, to take home, or all three in one efficient stop!

My business philosophy is summed up in four words: Honesty, Service, Respect, and Accountability. We aimed to be much more than a sandwich; the goal was feel good food. My mantra to my new employees was always “Our customers have probably had a stressful morning. It’s our job to send them back to work feeling better than when they came in!”

The Lunchbox is why I encourage others to “listen to your heart!” I was tracked to be a teacher – who knew cooking for people you care about could be a career?

Everything Knoxville then had the opportunity to talk to current owners, Randy and Trish Holmes, who are committed to maintaining Karen’s business philosophy. The staff at all three locations sung their praises for continuing the tradition of The Lunchbox. The entire Holmes family have been long-time “regulars” – both as customers and employees – and were eager to keep the restaurant going.

EK: Why did you decide to invest in The Lunchbox?

Randy: The Atrium location of The Lunchbox on Weisgarber was our go-to lunch spot almost daily when we had our medical device business. I was (and still am!) a huge fan of the chicken salad and chili! When we were approached about buying the business in 2018, it was a no-brainer. The Lunchbox has been a Knoxville icon since the ’80s. It began as a “family business,” and we wanted to keep it that way.

Trish: Our oldest daughter, Hollie, and son-in-law, Ean Hurst (General Manager), along with my brother, Matthew Wise (Operations Manager), were employees of The Lunchbox, so we knew it was already managed very well. Today, our youngest daughter, Allie, handles the social media/marketing, our middle daughter, Lacie, occasionally helps with baking, while her husband, Eric Childers (son-in-law #2), helps me with the accounting side of the business. It can truly still be labeled a “family business.”

EK: There are many options for food in Knoxville. Why do you think The Lunchbox has such staying power?

Randy: The difference is “the formula hasn’t changed.” We have made sure to stay as true to Karen’s recipes as we can, which continue to be the heartbeat and foundation of The Lunchbox. The signature chicken salad, soups, fresh sandwiches, and ready-to-go desserts have always been a major draw.

Trish: Our downtown Market Manager, Josephine, has been with The Lunchbox for too many years to count! She has been making these “tried and true” recipes from scratch for more than 20 years. With her customer service and know-how, we knew to stick with what worked. Rhonda, our Market Manager at The Atrium, has taken customer service to the next level, greeting customers daily with smiles and gratitude.

EK: The Lunchbox definitely falls in to the “beloved Knoxville institution” category. What are your business goals as The Lunchbox moves forward?

Randy: We continue to offer homestyle, quality foods that people keep coming back to, and our mission is to stay consistent in honoring The Lunchbox legacy. We would love to reach more of Knoxville so everyone can enjoy the same sandwiches and soups that we have always loved! Dine-in or carry-out for lunch and beyond. Convenience is the name of the game!

Trish: We also have boxed lunches for delivery. It is nice for everyone to have their own portion without needing to share off a common tray. The majority of our deliveries are to businesses, but we cater to any size group. Order from The Lunchbox to be the lunchtime hero!

EK: What are your plans for The Lunchbox in the future?

Trish: New menu items are being tested monthly. Our Kitchen Manager, Rebecca Combs, has been very creative in adding more items to our Take and Bake and catering menus. Our catering options are perfect for lunch meetings and large or small groups. The boxed lunches continue to be a big hit! We have several concepts and ideas that we plan to launch soon, as we anticipate the economy opening back up in the coming months.

Randy: As Knoxville continues to open up, all three locations – downtown near Krutch Park at The US Bank building, Bearden near Homberg, and The Atrium on Weisgarber – are excited to welcome regulars and “newbies” again!

We look forward to continuing the great tradition of The Lunchbox and serving the Knoxville community for years to come. Come see us!

The Lunchbox

5005 Kingston Pike

The Atrium
1225 E Weisgarber Road

Downtown at The US Bank Building
607 Market Street