Knoxville Coffee Sign Needs New Home

A beloved advertisement has disappeared from the landscape of Knoxville, Tenn., but its owner is trying to find a new home for the iconic JFG Coffee sign.

With letters that stretch as high as 14 feet and spell out "JFG Special Coffee: The Best Part of the Meal," the sign stood for more than 50 years at the southern end of downtown Knoxville's Gay Street Bridge. Last October, however, after the landowner declined to renew the lease for the sign, it was removed. The sign's owner, New Orleans-based Reily Foods, is funding a restoration effort, now under way.

Reily Foods, the parent company of JFG Coffee, has partnered with the nonprofit Knox Heritage, launching a campaign last summer called Save Our Signs – Knoxville. In December, Reily donated $15,000 from coffee sales to the nonprofit. The funds will support a grant program to restore other historic signs.

"As a historic brand, we care about history," says Mary-Wanda Fandiño, Riley's marketing director. "We hope this is a spark that will inspire other companies to preserve history."

Save Our Signs – Knoxville was inspired by a similar effort in Charlotte, N.C. Two years ago, Reily started a sign restoration initiative in that city, restoring one JFG Coffee sign there, establishing a grant program, and donating $13,100 to Historic Charlotte.

“The program in Charlotte laid the groundwork for the program here," says Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage. “It's everything you'd like to see in a corporate partner working with historic preservation … That sign is so well loved by people all over the city."

Reily Foods will invest more than $40,000 to restore the two cities' JFG Coffee signs, according to Fandiño. Once restoration of the Knoxville sign is complete, Reily Foods hopes to erect it in a new location. In the meantime, Knox Heritage is working with the city council to secure necessary waivers, since the sign does not comply with current city ordinances.

During restoration of the Knoxville sign—which "was in pretty bad shape," according to Ethiel Garlington, director of Preservation Field Services at Knox Heritage—its 800-odd light bulbs will be replaced. So Knoxville Heritage staff had a bright idea for the holidays: sell the bulbs for $10 each. "That's been a really popular gift item," Garlington says. “People made ornaments out of them."

Knox Heritage is now accepting applications for matching grants to restore other historic signs in the city.

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