Erin Phillips remembers years ago walking to the diner around the corner from her
Lawrenceville home with her baby boy.
Now her son is 17 and it is Phillips herself who owns a popular restaurant that opened earlier this year in that same location.
Vittles & Grits
, at 3836 Lawrenceville Drive, features a menu filled with items she grew up eating in eastern Tennessee. It also represents the fulfillment of a dream after spending 25 years as a pharmacy tech.
“Even when I was young, before I started in pharmacy, I thought it would be fun but didn’t have the means or opportunity to do it,” says Phillips, who has lived in Lawrenceville for 16 years.
She had initially considered opening a food truck, but she preferred something more stable that she could work year-round. In the meantime, she drove by the empty diner near her home over and over again.
“It was sad to see it sit there and not get put to use,” she says.
She spoke with the former owner. They talked for two hours, she says, and by the next day she knew that she wanted to move forward.
She quit her pharmacy job in September 2022, and the restaurant opened its doors in January.
“From day one it’s been customers, just a steady stream,” says Phillips, 45.
The restaurant has become a gathering place, where customers can socialize, drink a few cups of coffee and take their time. If they don’t know anyone when they walk in the door, they’ll know someone by the time they leave, she says.
Many locals come every day, “sometimes twice a day,” she says. The restaurant is open 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; and is closed on Wednesdays.
Customers come for the vittles – a southern term for food, Phillips says – and the grits. The menu includes traditional butter grits, as well as a grit of the day. Bacon cheddar is a popular option, as well as chorizo grits.
“It’s hard to find good grits in this area,” she says.
Other items include soup beans, cornbread, omelets, fried potatoes and chocolate gravy.
Chocolate gravy, she says, is a regional specialty that is a mixture of cocoa, flour, sugar, milk and butter that thickens into a gravy consistency and can be enjoyed on biscuits and pancakes.
Grilled donuts and grilled honey buns are also on the menu, eaten either plain or as part of a breakfast sandwich.
“It totally changes the flavor,” she said.
Phillips, who is at the business about 11 hours each day that it is open, can be found at the front of the restaurant staffing the grill, while her boyfriend, Matt Roppel, is in the back. Vittles & Grits also has one or two servers on duty, with a high schooler washing dishes on weekends.
The hours are long, but the commute is short – it’s about a 30-second walk to work, she said.
And her customers make it seem like she is cooking for a family get-together, she says.
Phillips had no previous restaurant experience before opening Vittles & Grits, and the Springfield Small Business Development Center
helped her in the beginning to complete the necessary regulatory steps and set up back-office operations.
It can be risky to start a business, and new restaurants in particular, says Rob Alexander, executive director of the Springfield SBDC. Many people love to cook and think they can start a successful food truck or restaurant.
He was impressed, however, with Phillips’ determination. She found her passion and took the chance. And the chocolate gravy is “out of this world,” he says.
“She believed she could do it, and she did it,” he says. “Most people don’t have that courage.”
Working in Phillips’ favor, Alexander says, is her understanding of Lawrenceville and its residents.
“I think people can tell when a business owner loves the people they serve,” he says.