Shopper Blog: Central alums’ smokers selling faster than they can build them – Knoxville News Sentinel

Ali James, Shopper News
Brandon Lawson is a third-generation ironworker but said his father refused to teach him the trade, forcing him instead to go to college and do something else.
Despite that, Lawson and business partner Hayes Walton (both Central High alumni) built their custom metalwork business, The Metal Guys (TMG) Custom Metal, in Lawson’s Fountain City garage in 2016.
“We started off as a sign company cutting metal signs. When COVID hit we came to a standstill,” said Lawson. “We built a smoker for a local guy in Knoxville, and we sold it before we had it built for him. It happened two more times when we realized we had a market.”
Lawson and Walton, along with two other team members, launched TMG Pits.
“Hayes walked around one of our smokers and posted the video on TikTok. It went viral with nearly 300,000 views and our social media really sent us in this direction,” he said.
Lawson, who admits to being very particular about his metalwork, said they had to shut down their original metal sign business because they have an eight-month waiting list for their custom smokers.
“The most asked question is how long does it take for us to build a smoker,” said Lawson. “There is not really a definitive answer.  We average two smokers a week, and this showcase smoker we made for Yee Haw Brewing took us about two weeks.”
While they still cut metal signs for local people, their big focus is now on TMG Pits and adding smoker accessories to their lineup.
“We have had so many requests for accessories; a spatula set, fire poker, charcoal chimney and burger presses,” said Lawson. “We just made a bunch of burger presses for Smash Knoxville.”
While nearly every smoker order is completely customized and unique, Lawson said that the goal usually is to create something to “beat the previous smoker.”
“That is what sets us apart,” he said. “Drew Thomas with Yee Haw reached out to me and said they were looking for a completely custom rig, something that no one else has done. They wanted to be able to do a 250-pound pig on a smoker and to use it for competitions. You will not see another one like this anywhere. We cut into the framework; we didn’t just put their sign on there. And the handles are like beer bottles.”
TMG Pits’ smoker temperatures are adjustable. “175F for warming, ribs at 250F or chicken wings at 350F, or we can do pizza at 750; the hottest we have made the smoker is 1,000 degrees,” Lawson said.
TMG Pits’ base model smoker on castors is suited for back porch use. The options are limitless when it comes to a fully customized competition/commercial smoker that can be towed behind a vehicle or taken off road.
“We can send them to a website to customize what they want,” said Lawson.
“Customers will bring drawings to us. Some may want a combination wood fire and pellet fire or stainless steel hubcaps, or add a rotisserie,” said Lawson. “I don’t think we have told anyone ‘no’ yet.”
Increased shelf space for cooking or prep are some of their most requested upgrades.
“We just finished a propane grill with four or five shelves in it for catering in a park and we can add a rotisserie,” he said.
The exterior finish is unpainted and has a metal patina. “We don’t use cheap latches; the doors can get heavy, so the handles need to be easy to open,” said Lawson. “We use all quarter-inch steel. This smoker will outlast me and you, and you will be able pass it down to your kids.”
The Copperhead model has an octagonal shape, and the Metal Guys have just finished testing out the Fridge, a cabinet style smoker with the off-set fire box to one side. When they design a new model they usually test it for up to two days.
Personally, Lawson said he likes to throw big parties and smoke brisket, pork, around six slabs of ribs and a chicken.
Nancy Anderson, Shopper News
About 200 people dropped in to help Alesia Anderson and her crew celebrate the grand opening of Anderson’s Beauty Bar and Spa on Saturday, Sept. 11.
The staff served hors d’oeuvres, cupcakes, sangria and mimosas welcoming everyone to the new facility.
There were a number of door prizes, including lavender CBD cream, Farmasi products, free haircuts, and a massage. 
The interior is warm and welcoming. Comfort meets function in a well-designed little space.
“I wanted a space where everyone would feel comfortable, not intimidated. A space where people could relax,” Anderson said..
“My husband, John, and our friends Jay Ambrister and Charlie James did a great deal of interior work knocking down walls, putting in lighting and just making my vision come to life. I just wanted to say a special ‘thank you’ to them.”
Anderson has six professionals available at the beauty bar and spa including hair stylists, a masseuse, a medical esthetician, a regular esthetician, and a nail technician on staff.
Besides haircuts and color, the beauty bar and spa offers a wide range of services including eyelash extensions, eyebrow tinting, microdermabrasion, facials, manicures, pedicures, spray-tans, massages, and makeup consultations.
Anderson is a Farmasi Beauty Products representative.
“There is no better brand than Farmasi and it’s affordable. It’s professional grade makeup and skincare at affordable prices. It is free from parabens, gluten, sulfate and animal cruelty.
“I’ve been in the beauty industry for more than 26 years. I’ve traveled all over the states mixing custom makeup. I’ve always wanted to own a beauty bar. Beauty is a passion and I wanted to change people’s lives by making them feel happy and confident. I can do that through the services we offer here.”
She said she chose Karns as the location of her spa because she lives in Karns and the people in the area feel like family.
“I didn’t choose Karns, Karns chose me. It’s home and the people of Karns are family to me. That’s how I want people to feel when they walk into the beauty bar; like they’re visiting family.
“When clients walk out of the door I want them to feel happy and blessed.”
Anderson’s Beauty Bar and Spa is at 7815 Oak Ridge Highway, Suite 4 (just west of the stoplight). It is open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., closed on Sundays. Call 865-249-6862 for an appointment.
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Ali James, Shopper News
Even before artist Jessica Ramsey had painted the final dogwood bloom on the outside of Gracie Lee’s Gifts & More, passersby were snapping photos of the mural.
“It feels very appropriate to have the mural finished right at our first birthday,” said Michelle Mears, co-owner of Gracie Lee’s. “It’s been our goal since the beginning, and it was well worth the wait. I was just leaving the store and I saw another person stopping to take a picture.”
Mears opened Gracie Lee’s Gifts & More with her daughters, Gracie Mears and Makenzie Leslie, in September 2020, and their business has already exceeded their wildest dreams.
“We have grown our inventory six times, increased our baby apparel and home gifts and every aspect of our store,” said Mears. “Our landlord has been phenomenal. They want us to stay here for a long time, so they extended our lease and added a suite for my office and back stock.”
A balloon bar inside the shop has proven to be wildly popular, and the trio have built a reputation for their signature gift wrapping service.
“Aside from being overwhelmed by our loyal customers’ support, I have been amazed by the calls for us just to put together a gift and use our own creativity,” said Mears.  
One surprising outcome has been the number of American-made small businesses represented in Gracie Lee’s. “We have over 20; my girls have done a phenomenal job of supporting small businesses,” said Mears. “I always hoped for that and that has definitely come to fruition.”
Gracie Lee’s Gifts & More also worked with a designer to create a line of North Knox, Fountain City and Bobcat-themed apparel.
In addition to running the business, Mears is a Realtor, daughter Makenzie Leslie is a special education teacher and Gracie Mears has immersed herself in a full-time nursing degree at the University of Tennessee. Recently they hired their first employee and launched their website for online purchases.
The grand opening party was held Sept. 16. Customers could pose for photos in front of Sandy Floral Designs’ floral wall, in front of Paper Heron’s window art or the new Fountain City mural. Swag bags were given to the first 50 people, and there was a Mills Gourmet food sampling of dips, soups, jellies and popcorn and a prize wheel to spin.
The bulk of Ramsey’s other Knoxville murals can be found in the Old City at the new Brother Wolf Cocktail Bar, on the exterior of Grow Salon and Farmacy in Bearden.
The Fountain City dogwood-themed mural greets North Knoxville commuters and shoppers. “I have some art on the walls inside Farmacy and lately I’ve been doing a bunch of commissioned paintings,” she said.
“I’m just honored to do it, it was a really fun project,” said Ramsey, about the Gracie Lee’s mural. “They came to me with the dogwood design, which is historical to the Fountain City area.”
The building owners, Davis Construction, had already primed the side of the building with a neutral basecoat. “It probably took me about three weeks to complete. We had hurricane weather at the time. That slowed me down; it usually takes me two weeks,” said Ramsey, who plans to leave her stamp with her Instagram handle @jessicaramseyart.
“Some of my art appeared on HGTV recently on ‘Breaking Bland.’ I have a Dolly Parton mural in Maryville,” she said. “I have painted murals in all of the Honeybee Coffee locations and I’m about to start one in South Knoxville.”
Nancy Anderson, Shopper News
“My job is to support the kids and give them the motivation they need to be successful in high school,” says Dr. Charlene Lewis, assistant principal of Farragut High School.
“The job is not high on discipline. There is some; it’s more motivation to do the right thing. I’d rather motivate kids than discipline them. I have a deep respect for my kids.
“The most fun thing I do is plan incentive programs for the kids. Things like snacks or the ice cream truck we have out front today. I love to see the kids happy.”
Lewis grew up in East Knoxville, graduating from Austin-East High School in 1990. She moved to Chattanooga, where she met her husband and lived for more than 20 years. She came home to Knoxville for good to participate in the TAP (Teacher Advancement Placement) program as a master teacher.
“Coming home for the TAP program was perfect timing for me. I had just gotten my principal’s licensure and was looking for leadership roles. I became a mentor teacher at Austin-East High School, then a master teacher at Vine Middle School.”
She became an administrator at South-Doyle High School for three years, then went to Northwest Middle School for three years. She has been at Farragut High School for two years.
Education wasn’t Lewis’s first calling. She was a journalist first, but when the job market proved to be tough, she went back to school to become a teacher.
“It was the best thing I ever did. I can make a difference in many students’ lives as an administrator.”
Lewis holds a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from Middle Tennessee State University, a master’s in secondary education (English), a master’s in school leadership, and a Ph.D. in education leadership and policy studies, all from the University of Tennessee.
“I am a true geek. I love education, whether it’s my own or someone else’s. I found I have a real passion for it, all aspects of education from the classroom to administration.  
“Early on, right out of getting my bachelor’s, I volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club teaching creative writing.
“I just wanted the kids to love English as much as I do, so I went back to school and got a master’s in English, but I felt I hit a plateau so I got another master’s in leadership. Right about that time, I wanted to expand beyond the classroom. I wanted to provide support for teachers and kids. I knew administration was where I belonged.
“After my second master’s it was just natural to get my Ph.D. Getting an education was a challenge, but I loved every minute of it.”
Lewis is an avid writer. She has written several plays and poems. She said writing a book is in her future, as is her own principalship.
Ali James, Shopper News
Kelly Sifford, a mom to three teenage boys, discovered that if she could create T-shirts for them, she could save some money.
“I tried my hand at making T-shirts for Valentine’s Day this year,” said Sifford. “I just looked at the things my sons would be interested in and decided to make them shirts.” Her youngest son has a T-shirt featuring his beloved Boston Terrier ‘Chunk,’ and her other sons were given T-shirts with images of their favorite rap star.
Sifford decided to start Wildflower Tees and moved on to Cinco de Mayo, creating margarita and taco-themed shirts. “But those are really good any time of the year; who doesn’t love tacos?” said Sifford.
“I made shirts for Mardi Growl, including Dog Mom and Dog Dad shirts. And now we are rolling into Halloween; that pretty much started right after Fourth of July.”
Sifford likes to think of things that are not only popular, but that she also likes.
“I can usually market it better if it’s something I enjoy or love,” she said. A Sanderson Sisters Brewing Company shirt — inspired by the “Hocus Pocus” movie — is already popular.
“I’m also working on one that is a nod to my favorite vampire movie growing up, the ‘Lost Boys.’”
After signing up as a vendor at a psychic fair in Harriman, Sifford had so much fun, she continued setting up at vendor markets at least once or twice a month.
“I love selling my T-shirts in person; people can feel how soft they are and come to me to create things for them,” she said.
“You can find me at the craft fair in front of the United Grocery Outlet on Chapman Highway on Oct. 16.”
Sifford can custom print just about any design on T-shirts, as well as on burlap patches for trucker caps and on tote bags.
“I just designed a homecoming T-shirt for Kaylee Gaylon, a South-Doyle High school student. $7 from each shirt that we sell will support the school’s wrestling team,” she said. “I just printed new work shirts for the Goodwin’s South of the River food truck, too.”
The name Wildflower Tees was inspired by the 15-acre property on which Sifford and her family live.
“My husband built our house pretty much by himself on his days off from his regular job as a firefighter,” she said. “My mom always called me her Flower Child too, so when I was spitballing names I thought that one fit.”
Crafting may be just a side hustle right now for Sifford, who spends her day monitoring call center calls for quality assurance, but she hopes that Wildflower Tees will eventually turn into a full-time gig.
“I just love to craft and make things, and I have always made my own stuff,” said Sifford. “I make wooden signs; my husband and I make things out of reclaimed barnwood, and at Christmas I always make ornaments out of birch wood cut from the trees on our property.”
Sifford has joined several Facebook groups and relies heavily on the support and feedback from them. “They helped me work out what supplies I needed and let me know what people would be interested in,” she said. “I post all of my current designs including prices and sale items at I’m getting ready to get rid of my summer items to make more room for stock.”
Leslie Snow, Shopper News
I tell Cheri my story and she shakes her head. “Leslie,” she says urgently, “you have to write about this. People should know.”
I think about her words and shake my head. “Nothing I say will change anyone’s mind. People are too entrenched in their own belief system. They watch the news that reflects their own ideas, and they read the articles that make them feel good about their opinions. I can’t make a difference no matter what I write.”
“Just try,” she says. “Maybe you’ll be surprised.”
I think about her words for the rest of the day. I weigh the pros and cons then decide to give it a try. Just in case Cheri’s right. Just in case I’ve become too cynical in my views.
So, here is my COVID-19 story. But really, it’s my mom’s story.
Last month, my mother’s cancer was diagnosed. She has metastatic melanoma that has traveled to her lymph nodes. We’ve been to more doctors and hospitals in the past few weeks than I can count, getting tests and scans, meeting with her oncologist.
Last week, we had an appointment with a surgeon who said my mom is a good candidate for surgery. Her first words after hearing the news were, “I want it done as soon as soon as possible.”
I jumped in to explain. “When you learn you have cancer, you don’t want to give it time to spread. You want it out of your body immediately.”
“I understand,” he said sympathetically. “In normal times, you could have your surgery in a matter of days, but our hospital is overflowing with COVID-19 patients right now. We’re so short staffed, we’re having to move nurses around to cover all the coronavirus cases. Until things improve, it’s hard for us to schedule even cancer surgeries. We’ll get you on the schedule as soon as we can but it’s going to be a few more weeks.”
My mom’s shoulders dropped, and my anger rose. “I wish more people would get vaccinated. People say it’s a personal choice, but it’s a choice that affects other people. People I love. People with cancer.”
Later, after I got home, I took Buttercup to the dog park. It was a chance for both of us to cool down and think about the world. While we were walking, I overheard a man talking on the phone, complaining about all the people urging him to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“If God wanted me to get a vaccine…” he began. I didn’t stick around to hear the end of the sentence.
I’m not an expert on God or faith, but I know we’re supposed to take care of our neighbors. Getting vaccinated is a way to take care of the people in our community, our friends, our teachers, and the strangers we pass in the grocery store. It’s a personal decision, but it’s a moral decision too.
Being vaccinated protects the most vulnerable people in our population. It keeps hospital beds open for emergencies and allows heart and cancer patients to get the care they need. The vaccine helps the nurses and doctors who are struggling to take care of us all.
On a day when newspaper headlines were about Tennessee topping the nation in COVID-19 cases, I finally got the call to schedule my mom’s surgery. “Things are fluid,” the scheduler told me, “but for now, the hospital isn’t canceling cancer surgeries.”
I was glad the surgery was finally scheduled, but the words “for now” felt like a warning.
Leslie Snow may be reached at snow
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