Charlie and Renee Eich were iconic fixtures with their popular restaurant, Cheeburger Cheeburger downtown. Located at 2nd and Market it was one of the cornerstones of the revitalization on the riverfront after the Tennessee Aquarium opened. The popular burger joint actually was as much a part of downtown as was the Aquarium, the I-MAX or other destination downtown keeping visitors and locals fed. One day their family literally saw their empire crumble at their feet. After being alerted by the city building inspector the structure was unsafe the Eichs closed the restaurant immediately sending staff home and find out their options with the building. The next day after accessing the building they left and as they walked away from it the front of the structure literally collapsed before their eyes. Looking in disbelief as the now ruins of their business literally lay before them, the family had to decide what to do next. They opted for the opposite of what many figured or hoped they would do and took their business elsewhere. The Eichs chose and older restaurant on Suck Creek Road along the Tennessee River to fix up and opened River Drifters, trading the hustle and bustle of the city for the iconic view of the river and a more laid back atmosphere. We caught up with Charlie Eich to talk about the new restaurant as River Drifters celebrates their first anniversary.
What got you into the wild world of restaurateur?
I kind of got stuck in it by birth. My dad owned a bar in Libertyville, Illinois when I was growing up, so starting at about 10 years old I was stocking beer coolers and bussing tables for his place on weekends. I wasn’t what you would call a model student. (laughs) High school and I parted ways a little prematurely and I found myself in a… well, necessity is the mother of invention as they say, so I needed to do something to pay my bills. I knew the restaurant business and thought I was pretty good at it so I stuck with it. I went to work for Pizza Hut right out of school and stayed with them for nine years; left supervising several restaurants and never broke out of it.
The first restaurant you are known for in Chattanooga was Cheeburger Cheeburger. How did that concept come about?
I actually had another business called Tri-State Cutlery and I sharpened knives for restaurants on the side while I was a salesman for a food service company. A friend of mine who owned another restaurant chain here in town said the people that just opened Cheeburger Cheeburger restaurant were struggling and needed some help, so I was actually hired as a consultant. I went in there and straightened things up and we started a partnership. I eventually bought them out 100 percent. We were there for about 18 years.
One of the things I remember most about Cheeburger Cheeburger besides obviously the burgers was that one huge burger you had and if you completed it your picture got put on a “wall of fame”. How many people actually tried to eat it? I did actually witness one of my friends accomplish that.
Really a lot. A lot more than you would think. We advertised it as the “Pounder” but it was actually a 20-ounce burger. Our quarter pound burger was five ounces; our third pound was seven ounces. Everything was a little bit bigger at Cheeburger. That was one of the things they were known for. It got to be on weekends with a large tourist crowd we’d be given a round of applause several times throughout the day for people who had done it. It’s not easy. I’ve done it myself and you’re uncomfortably full when you’re done with it, but it was pretty popular for people to do. I actually saw a little girl do it one time. She must have been about nine. And then several minutes later this big dude finished it – about a 350 pounder. It was almost embarrassing they were clapping for him after they were clapping for this little nine-year-old girl that just did it. But that was very unusual. She’s a future professional eater of some kind I’m sure. It happened a lot. There were some cool stories too where some people would come back years later that had done it and say that was their first date and could they get that picture or somebody had passed away and that was the last photo that was taken of them and do we still have record of it. So it was a pretty cool novelty. People really enjoyed that.
You were in the heart of downtown at 2nd and Market where parking was at a premium. You were always full but it seemed hard to get to you at times.
Yeah, I think it was kind of a double edge sword honestly, because you would lose a lot of the local business at lunchtime during the peak tourist season because people didn’t want to take a chance of trying to find a place to park, but people were already parked who were walking to go to the Aquarium or to the IMAX or any of the tourist things there downtown, the riverfront. So they were already there; paid to park somewhere walking and they were going to find some place to eat. We were so close to the Aquarium – and I hate to sound arrogant or boastful because it just kind of morphed into it, it became kind of iconic. We were part of the fabric that was downtown. We had been there for so long and were one of the originals – us and 212 [Market]. [TGI] Fridays was there. Basically that was it for a good period of time after the Aquarium opened. So we became part of the institution down there. We were part of the fabric – part of the traditions that people had when they came into Chattanooga. Of course a lot o people visit us from close by, so you’ve got Nashville, Knoxville, Atlanta, Huntsville – people getting a quick two-day vacation for the weekend. And we had a lot of regular customers who were from hours away and sometimes they’d drive hours just to eat lunch with us, which was pretty flattering.
The building that housed Cheeburger Cheeburger unfortunately came apart.
It sure did.
You have moved to Suck Creek, a little out of the way but a beautiful area with access to water and away from the hustle and bustle of the city. How hard was it to leave downtown after being at Cheeburger Cheeburger for so long? Did you look at another downtown location?
We met with some real estate agents and looked at some other properties downtown. We actually even looked at over in East Ridge outside of Camp Jordan – the Jordan Crossroads development they’ve got going over there where the new Chick-Fil-A is. I was out riding one day on my motorcycle on Suck Creek Road and I saw this place. There’s an old saying, “You can never go home again”. If you were raised somewhere outside of Chattanooga when you go back to visit it’s changed drastically and doesn’t feel like home any more. So I knew if we opened another place downtown: number one you were taking a big chance because real estate is a lot more expensive per square foot down there and we might not be as successful as we were at the old location. So I thought let’s not try and duplicate it – not try and do the same thing. We probably might not get the same results. Let’s go completely off grid. When I say off grid I don’t mean location, but away from that concept and so something completely different. I was fortunate enough to go away for a couple of weeks about ten or twelve weeks ago and got my captain’s license. I always enjoyed being on the water, around the water, boating, river activities and stuff like that, riding motorcycles. And this location has all those things. It encompasses the hikers, the bikers, the motorcyclists, the outdoor enthusiast, and water activities. I saw this place sitting empty and I thought man, this would be a great spot. We called the agent and we were able to look at it the next day.
You’ve got a lot going on at River Drifters, not only food, but also music and river activity rentals. How are you able to balance everything?
We work a lot. (laughs) Particularly when we first opened we were pushing 100 hours a week. I literally lost 30 pounds in our first month here because you’re in the kitchen every day; you’re trying to figure it out; you put the menu together but you never fed hundreds of people at one time so you learn where to store things, how much prep you need to do, how busy you’re going to be with rentals; training a new crew almost while you’re training yourself at the same time. Anytime you open a new place if it’s not already been done and perfected you go through learning curves. But we were extremely fortunate that we were able to start busy, so I was certainly grateful for that because we had so many friends and relationships from our previous life downtown and everybody knew what happened. I don’t think there was pity; there was definitely support. People wanted to come out here and support us in our new place and the news and the media were very friendly towards us and gave us a lot of publicity right off the bat. So we went out of the gate busy and it’s been a real blessing.
It’s almost like a vacation out here compared to being downtown – for you and also the patrons. I’m sure you had a number of patrons follow you out here knowing you had the place.
Oh yeah. Once we get people out here they’re hooked. It’s a beautiful place. When I was sitting on the deck before we leased the building there’s always a huge chance of failure when you open a restaurant. You’ve seen it – everybody’s seen it. The place that’s there today is gone tomorrow – and that’s happened more and more and more as people try to dive into this business in Chattanooga. But I thought to myself; if I’m going to go broke I’d rather do it here sitting looking at that mountain and the river than full parking lots that I wasn’t getting any piece of downtown. It just seemed like a good fit at the time – and I’m thankful for it because it’s a more relaxing even though there’s high pressure of being a restaurant owner, having the beauty of the area here tones that down a little bit. Our customers really enjoy it because like you said, it does feel like vacation around here. It feels like a vacation spot around here. You can drive just two miles off of Signal Mountain Boulevard and your blood pressure going to drop 30 points.
I was going to say, I’ve felt my blood pressure as we’ve sat here. (laughs)
Cheeburger Cheeburger had kind of a limited menu based solely on the name of course – and while I realize you had more than just cheeseburgers. How did you put the menu together here? You weren’t the person who started Cheeburger Cheeurger, but basically got it in order. Was there a kind of creative freedom in making up the menu for River Drifters?
Oh yeah. The freedom was across the board – not just the menu – everything from design decor to colors, seating and all the aesthetics. We were limited at Cheeburger because it was a franchise. I did work for Cheeburger corporate, so I was able to influence some of the decisions and paths that we took, but here it’s 100 percent. It’s been really awesome to do some of the things we wanted to do before but couldn’t. I do have a pretty tiny kitchen here, so that did limit some of the things I would like to do. I’d like to have prime rib night and some things of that nature – and we may eventually as we continue to grow. But it was nice to put together the menu. I’ve got my grandma’s meatball recipe on there. I’ve got things that were inspired by family members. You can go online and look it up our menu at riverdrifterschatt.com and kind of see there’s something for everybody. The reviews have really been humbling. They’ve been fantastic and we’re really excited about that. Everybody seems to be really enjoying the food a whole lot.
With the addition of the variety and style of food you also have a bar. How do you balance the two without pulling your hair out now dealing with all the headaches that come with serving alcohol?
We don’t have tequila or Jagermeister, so that helps a whole lot. (laughs) We’re beer only. We’re kind of in a weird little zone right here. The Chattanooga city limits sign is about a hundred yards that way (pointing) and the next county is about a quarter mile that way, so we’re in a little dead zone. I feel like I could probably petition the state legislature to change the zoning here and get liquor on a tourist visa type situation, but I’m not sure I even really want to, to be honest with you. We’ve got beers from Oddstory, Heaven & Ale and other local breweries as well as a nice selection of beer. To balance that out – one, I have to balance myself out because now that I’m around beer all the time I’ve got to make sure I don’t drink beer all the time. (both laugh) It’s been nice to be able to have that. You might not want lunch, you might want to grab a beer somewhere so we’re catching another clientele that maybe we didn’t have at Cheeburger Cheeburger. Plus you’re out here on the river; you do have a license to sell beer to go. We have a lot of boaters come in pick up six-packs and a bag of ice and we’ll actually deliver our food down to the boat ramp. It’s nice to see people having fun out there and they can call us and we can bring it to them.
What is that dynamic like having the ability to do stuff like that and having the boaters call you up for a delivery compared to just waiting for people to come inside the restaurant?
I don’t know. It goes back to that whole vacation thing. I’ve never been on a boat where I never had a really great time. I’ve been caught in rainstorms; weather picked up, waves were hitting hard, fish weren’t biting, but I still had a good time out on the boat, so it’s that whole dynamic of that vacation mode type thing. Some people might look at it as an inconvenience to have to leave your restaurant. I look at it as awesome. I get to get away and drop off some food for some people that are having a great time.
River Drifters is a destination location compared to being downtown where you’re flooded by people whether they’re coming into your place or not.
It’s a completely different dynamic because as a business owner you prepare for the worst and hope for the best. We have complete exceeded the expectations that we had for it prior to opening. Because of that very reason of being a destination spot I had legitimate concerns. How do we get the word out there? How do we tell people that we’re there? I felt pretty confident that once we could get people in the door we could do a good enough job of taking care of them and make them want to come back and tell their friends or want to tell their friends and want to bring friends back. We’re doing honestly better business that I originally anticipated. It just seems to be falling together really well.
With the name River Drifters, coming to mind is kayaking and all sorts of floatation devices. Was that the initial intent? The restaurant that was here years ago was nothing at all like that.
No, we probably had a list of 20 different names and we wanted to have a name that would kind of convey what we were trying to do down here on the river. We had edgier names at first. We actually had the “Suck House” because we knew it would get attention. We knew it would be something people would talk about. But we also wanted to be careful so we didn’t want to be offensive. River Drifters just kind of fell together perfectly because it makes you think of somebody who’s laid back, floating on a raft type thing. It says we’re on the river. Being a drifter, I don’t know, would kind of take it as a compliment.
It’s kind of a romantic term.
Yeah, I think so. It’s that traveler, that rolling stone, nomadic lifestyle, that no-strings attached I’m not tied down I’m my own person going to do what I want where I want – not with a level of arrogance but a level of confidence and freedom of traveling. I think that’s what we’re trying to put out there.
You’re right at your first anniversary. What have you enjoyed most being out here?
I’ll tell you what has surprised me the most is the diversity of the clientele. To be perfectly honest with you we had friends who were like, “Are you sure you want out there? Are you going to have any customers? Is anybody going to be there? Are you going to end up with 20 local people all you’re gonna have?” We have climbers and boulders and repellers and hikers and river people who are paddling all different kinds of non-motorized vessels. We have motorcyclists. We have bikers. We have bicycle enthusiasts. We have church ladies on Sundays drinking sweet tea and eating our chicken salad. I think we pretty much nailed everybody. Our clientele is so diverse. That’s one of the things that really make this place cool. It changes every day. You never know what to expect or who walks through the door. But everybody – particularly the local people from the Suck Creek community have completely exceeded out expectations on the niceness level. They are some of the nicest people I have met. I’ve been all over this city for 35 years and I’ve got to tell you: this has been a fantastic experience being down here with the locals – truly.
– Dave Weinthal