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VOL. 43 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 26, 2019

Tia Rose finds her dream at Twin Kegs: ‘Dive bar with great food’

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Tia Rose Mirenda employed her middle name when renaming her neighborhood bar and burger place on Thompson Lane. She purchased the old International Famous Twin Kegs and added her personal touch to a place many now simply refer to as “Rosie’s.”

Dark brown eyes and hair showcasing her Italian heritage, the namesake of Rosie’s International Famous Twin Kegs scans her business, where she promises Woodbine’s (and she hopes Nashville’s) best burger-and-beer selection.

With my generation’s music – much of it by dead guys and senior citizens – streaming softly over the sound system, she half-circles the table to show me the large tattoo of St. Barbara on her right thigh.

“Let me give you a tour,” Tia says, hiking the leg on her black shorts up slightly to display the entire tattoo. “You’re lucky it’s summer.”

Tia allows me to examine the stained-glass-like body art of the patron saint of the Italian Navy, miners, artillerymen and other exploders. I compliment it and her.

“It took two days for the artist to do it. It was 3½ to four hours the first day and then 1½ to two hours the second day,” Tia says of the tattoo she added last year to her mostly private collection. A rosary is tattooed on the ankle below.

Her proud demonstration on a steamy Saturday morning was sparked when I asked her about the “handwriting-like” “whiskey” tattoo on the inside of her left bicep after she welcomed me into the bar she bought, rehabbed and named after herself.

Before I get into the other tattoos (there are plenty) – and, most importantly, the kindness and smarts of this 33-year-old working class heroine, dog mother and musician’s wife – I oughta note that erasing the Kegs’ sketchy, or at least vaguely unwelcoming image by employing hugs and smiles is part of the life’s dream she began practicing Oct. 1, 2017, when she officially opened the neighborhood business she lovingly resuscitated.

Perhaps my calling this gentle and genuine businesswoman “Tia” and calling her self-named bar “Rosie’s” is confusing.

But she quickly straightens me out: “I always knew that if I ever had a bar, I was going to call it Rosie’s,” explains Tia, whose full name is Tia Rose Mirenda. The Rose is a family name – “my grandmother was named Rose” – and she’s proud enough of it to dub her joint that, mainly because it sounds friendly and cool and sentimental, I suppose.

She is Tia in daily conversation, even though she also is the “Rosie” of the name above the door of the bar on Thompson Lane, just across from Krispy Kreme – a convenience late-night beer-hoisters likely have used to their advantage to prep for those Sunday mornings coming down. Or Tuesdays. Or Thursdays.

Tia and I sip slowly on coffee as she indicates her real frenzy will begin the following week.

“It’s Burger Week,” she says. “Forty restaurants are offering their specialty $5 burger all week. Last year we got third place, less than a year after we opened.” That almost-instant recognition still raises a smile.

The Nashville Scene contest – that turned new customers into judgers of her “Bacon Through to The Other Side” burger – “really worked” for Rosie … I mean, Tia… and her dream.

(That burger had bacon, house-made pimento cheese and house-made Evan Williams bourbon barbecue sauce. To say its name properly, mentally replay the old Doors song “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” that begins: “You know the day destroys the night, night divides the day …” More dead-guy music, of course.)

The contest lured and satisfied citywide burger hounds.

“It brought a lot of people in who before didn’t come in, because they thought this bar was sketchy,” she adds, pride lifting her voice above that of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

This year’s entry: “You’re The Pesto Round,” with goat cheese, confit onions (sautéed in duck fat, turning the onions almost into a jam), pesto mayo and farm-fresh tomato.

That contest’s exposure to It City burger-lovers – including the crucial newcomer/hipster market – helped her change the Kegs’ image in the minds of many. Those customers continue to patronize this establishment that long ago was Tia’s first step up the Nashville saloon ladder after a few years of bar education in Big Orange Country.

“Twelve years ago, I came to Nashville from Knoxville,” she says. She had family around here – she grew up on a farm in Barren Plains, near Springfield, where the Mirendas had moved, leaving Centereach, Long Island, when Tia was 2.

“My dad, Steve, is a mechanic. He had come down to Tennessee to visit his father, who already was here. Dad went back home to Long Island, and he and my mom (Sherri) loaded up their two cars, three dogs, one cat and two kids and drove to Tennessee.

“They wanted us growing up on a farm, not in the city,” she recalls of her happy childhood years. “We had a big log house on a farm, but not a working farm. We had up to 29 horses, cows, chickens, pigs, goats, a donkey. Even a pony.”

Her mother boarded and trained horses. Sherri now owns horses only for personal use down in Florida. “She just rides them,” says Tia of her mom.

“My parents divorced when I was 15. It was disturbing. When two Italians get divorced, it’s not pleasant.” Plenty of fireworks for her to survive while she was attending Springfield High School.

I ask, simply because of her gentle good looks and proud attitude, if she was a cheerleader, an athlete or anything else I could use to describe her years among the Springfield High Yellow Jackets.

Mirth escapes her brown eyes as she looks at me from above the coffee mug’s rim. “Mostly I just had fun,” she says, punctuating that with laughter that soars above Bowie’s “Golden Years” on the sound system.

“After high school, I moved to Knoxville and went to Pellissippi State for about a half-semester. Art. But school wasn’t my thing.”

Art is, though, and she continues to paint, sew (“my mom taught me how to stitch”) and do “all kinds of different things” in her scant free time when she’s not overseeing “Rosie’s.”

Her love of art is in her heart and in her soul … and all over her petite body.

“I like art,” she explains, adding that while she appreciated my compliments of the tattoos I could see, there are plenty more she’s not going to reveal.

“I have a heart, a peace sign, a dagger. Might be more in there,” Tia adds, teasing without revealing or disclosing locations. “And I’m not done. Both my parents have tattoos.

“It’s more important to me to let the artist do the tattoo than for me to say exactly what I want him to do. I like to trust the artist.” Looking again at that St. Barbara tattoo, I conclude her trust is well-served, though it doesn’t convince me to get one. My skin’s too old.

It was in Knoxville where she set the professional course that now has her owning a neighborhood bar on Thompson Lane in an area that can be called either Woodbine or Flat Rock, depending on your age and ancestry.

“I knew there was more money in the restaurant business than in hourly work,” she says of her “what the hell do I do now?” thought process after dropping out of the mighty Pellissippi.

She pauses from the tale of her restaurant career to say that “my parents always told us (Tia and her younger sisters Tymber, 32, and Tonnie, 27) our whole lives that that’s what you are going to do: Own your own business.

“My father said that whatever you do, even if it’s cleaning toilets, the thing you want to do is own it. Have your own business.”

We take long slugs of coffee while more dead-guy rock plays behind us and occasional customers slip in for post-or-pre-golf -– depending on tee times – breakfast or early lunch.

“It’s the American dream,” she continues, looking around Rosie’s while some old hippie sings about vitamin C and cocaine. The joy of being an entrepreneur – just like the individual expression they displayed in the tattoos they both wear – is part of the legacy of Steve and Sherri.

“My sister Tymber, lives on a tobacco farm in Springfield – they really farm it – and she also does some housekeeping business.

“Tonnie lives in Florida, where she’s a hairdresser and does some house-sitting and pet-sitting.”

Tia’s road to being “Rosie the barkeep,’’ began, she admits, by employing her brown-eyed girl good looks and physique.

“I went to work at Hooters in Knoxville,” she says. “I was a ‘Hooters Girl.’ It was good money, and I have a ‘don’t-take-any-shit attitude,’ so I did OK.”

Even in a Hooters tank, she remained true to Tia and her middle-class Italian upbringing.

“Some customers at Hooters expect you to show a lot more ‘interest’ in them than you do,” she acknowledges, choosing words carefully. “But I didn’t. It’s not the way I was raised. I don’t think it matters how I’m dressed: It’s who I am. I’m not going to take any shit. I’m sassy.”

Hooters – where she could work beginning when she was 18 – was a waystation for her career plan.

“As soon as I was 21 and I could, I went to work in a bar in Knoxville. It was the favorite bar I ever worked in that I didn’t own.

“I worked the bar, and the owner worked the kitchen. It was called ‘Blue Chips.’ I loved the owner. Everyone thought he was a hard-ass, but I understood why he didn’t want me to do some things.”

While she had escaped “traditional academia,” she kept up her higher learning. Hooters was her junior college, Blue Chips her university. She relished the lessons learned, good and bad, and brought that knowledge with her when she came home to Middle Tennessee.

“Twelve years ago, I came to Nashville. It was a lot safer back then to work random jobs you found on craigslist. I was a freelancer. I would bartend events and weddings. Then on weekends, I would travel around the country (to national cheerleading competitions). I worked for this guy who made these big, sparkly letters that cheerleaders would buy as room decorations.” By way of example, she says, “If I was a 13-year-old girl, I’d buy a ‘T’ for Tia.”

The travel allowed her to see a bit of the country, but it took its toll. “I have a dog, and it was hard to be away,” she says, noting during that period she was staying with different friends in West Nashville who looked after the dog. But it was too difficult for Tia.

“We’ve been together my entire life,” she explains, brown eyes glistening true puppy love. “He’s 14½.”

Stash, a Lab-Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, is featured on her Facebook page and remains one of the great loves of her life.

The other one is her husband, Ben Proctor, a Porsche technician and midnight drummer who she first knew only as semi-anonymous customer “Pale Ale” – more on that later – but she has “no children that I’m aware of.”

Anyway, her freelance bar-tending life only lasted about six months … ending when she saw something on craigslist about the need for a bartender at what was then simply called “International Famous Twin Kegs,” a parochial neighborhood tavern.

I’d been here before. Perhaps 25 years ago for a Nashville Banner column and then perhaps three years ago when I was prospecting “Street Level” column ideas for The Nashville Ledger.

I tell Tia that on my last visit – at least a year before her ownership – I felt uncomfortable, unwelcome and the bar itself seemed “sad.”

“It feels different in here now,” she tells me something I’d already felt. “Before, the energy was different here.” A large part of those changes in attitude are evidenced in her behavior and illustrated by her infectious smile.

“It’s now a pretty special place,” she says. “They hang out here, and we don’t talk about politics or religion. That’s banned here.

“And they also know there is no sexist, racist, homophobic garbage here. We don’t deal with that.” She nods her brown hair toward the door and traffic-heavy Thompson Lane, destinations for those who can’t abide by those behavior rules.

She began that first craigslist stint at International Famous Twin Kegs in January 2008 “and I stayed about 1½ or two years.”

Tia liked the bar and especially the community, but it wasn’t a great fit psychologically. As she explains with diplomacy: “I left because I’d come from a bar in Knoxville where I really respected the way it was done. It was really important to me to believe in what I serve from the bar and believe in the food.”

Her next stop was M.L. Rose, the popular Melrose watering hole, where – she smilingly admits – she employed her personal charm as well as her physical attributes and posture, tip-magnets honed at Hooters, to pad her pay.

“If you are going to work in the front, you’ve gotta make a living off it,” she says, explaining her straightforward application of body language in her server’s job.

Even with her “look-but-don’t-touch” attitude – “I can take it, but I can give it back pretty good” – she did more than OK at M.L. Rose, one of Berry Hill’s flourishing destinations.

“I loved the part of how busy I was at M.L. Rose. I live to be ‘in-the-weeds.’ I’d fly around the bar (serving customers), and then in the blink of an eye, the day would be over, and I’d have a pocketful of cash. It was a fun place to work.”

Tia Mirenda talks about her love of Woodbine, her husband Ben (formerly “Pale Ale”), her beloved dog, her tattoo collection and her dreams to keep contributing to the neighborhood from her spot as owner of Rosie’s International Famous Twin Kegs. She worked her way up the saloon and food business ladder en route to purchasing the historic bar on Thompson Lane.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

Tia halts the conversation for a few minutes. A friend has called from the concrete parking lot – historically, the lot at Twin Kegs was gravel with washed-out holes that would bottom-out a visitor’s old, white Saab – to say he has a load of tomatoes. She excuses herself.

“They look good,” she notes, when returning to the table to pick up our two empty mugs – “I’m ready for a warmup. You?” – and continues on to the kitchen, returning with steaming mugs. “I’ll take these tomatoes home and make tomato sandwiches. Love them.”

I find special kinship with nice people who savor coffee on 100-degree days, by the way.

“I’m going after you and I get done here down to the Farmers’ Market to get the tomatoes I’ll need for Burger Week,’’ she points out.

It was while working at M.L. Rose that she met the fellow who became her husband five years ago.

She ignored her own dating rules in the process. “I never dated anyone I met at the bar,” she says. “But I decided I wanted to teach myself how to play the drums. I told one of the other women that I wanted to find someone who could stop over at my house and teach me.

“She told me that Ben, a regular customer, was a drummer ‘and he might do it.’

“I didn’t know his name. He always drank pale ale, so he was just ‘Pale Ale’ to me.’’

Now she has her drum teacher right at home in their Woodbine house.

“I still play when I have time,” she says, adding that she never plays in public, not even when a live act has drums and other gear set up on the Rosie’s stage. “I do it as an expression, to get shit out of my body.” The “whiskey” on her bicep tightens as she feigns a drummer’s motions.

Neither drumming nor thrumming of any sort was needed to convince her that what she eventually wanted to do was run her own dive bar and restaurant.

That was why she tuned up her various skills at Hooters, Blue Chips and M.L. Rose.

All she needed was money, a commodity that was pretty good thanks to the appreciative M.L. Rose clientele.

But she needed a next, more-lucrative step, and the FDA-approved dog treats she was making and selling wasn’t the answer, no matter how much Stash liked them.

So, she hitched her ride toward bar-ownership on a food truck “called ‘A Little Italian,’ because I’m a little Italian,” she adds, standing up to display her 5-foot-2 frame. “But I’m the second-tallest in my family.

“My grandparents being older and passing away, there were a lot of recipes that if I didn’t do them, keep them going, they would die,” she says before listing her truck’s specialties: “Chicken Parm, meatball and eggplant in subs or over pasta. Homemade cannoli. Different types of specials.”

It was the food she ate as a kid in an Italian-American household and the “Wow!” of surprise from her customers pleased her, though caught her off-guard. “I thought everyone ate like that,” she says, adding she put the “A” in front of “A Little Italian” so it would show near the top of alphabetical listings.

“I did it for 2½ years,” she continues. “I mostly worked alone. The name of the game was to get enough money to get out of the food truck” and buy her dream bar.

“I didn’t want to stay in the food-truck business long, because of the inconsistency,” Tia says. “Consistency to me is key to have me more in control.

“The food truck was crazy and wild. I’d get up in the morning and hope it’s not raining or snowing or that I didn’t have a flat tire and that my truck would start.”

When necessary, she enlisted her biggest booster. “I relied on my father a lot,” she says of Steve, the mechanic.

Sometimes, if the situation was indeed dire, he’d drive down from his home in Gallatin to help his little girl. Other times, he’d give her instructions over the phone, guiding her while she fixed it herself.

“He would do crazy stuff,” she remembers, staring down at her near-empty coffee cup. “He’d tell me to ‘jam a screwdriver into this-or-that place and see if you get a spark.’

“I got shocked, and I asked him why he didn’t tell me that would happen? He told me ‘you wouldn’t have done it if I had told you you’d get shocked.’ That last two weeks I had the food truck, I had to take the cover off the engine every day to get it started,” she says.

“Nobody has to jam a screwdriver into anything to get me started here,” she says, surveying Rosie’s International Famous Twin Kegs.

The food truck served its purpose, though. “It was a good job, and it paid for our house,” she explains of A Little Italian’s work at festivals, parties, catered events, roadsides and parking lots.

“And I usually had Mondays off,” she adds.

It was on one of those Mondays that she began the paperwork and planning to give birth to Rosie’s. While she admits to being “spiritual, but not religious,” she figures something was at work to direct the occurrences.

The chain of events began on a weekend night. “Ben was out playing, and I wanted to get a drink. I was going down to the Tin Dog (on Fourth Avenue South, just north of where it turns into Nolensville Road), but something made me turn around and come out Nolensville Road and take a right and come to Twin Kegs.

“I knew the girl who was at the bar. I asked her what she was doing here. She said the Keg was for sale, so she was working a few shifts to see if she wanted to buy it.

The owner had opened another one on Hermitage Avenue.

Tia figured the bar purchase “was just a pipe dream” for the girl at the bar, but to this young Italian-American businesswoman who really didn’t want to keep on truckin,’ it was urgent reality.

“I went right out the back door,” she says, nodding toward that exit. “And I texted the owner to see if he could meet the next Monday, my day off.

“So, Monday, I sat down with him at the other Twin Kegs bar.”

On April 4, 2017, the two-year anniversary of her food truck, she and the owner began months of discussions.

“We met at least once a week, I’d sit down with him. It was real hush-hush.”

There was no doubt in her mind that this was the place of her destiny. “It was just what I wanted. It was a place to meet the community. I like this part of town.

“I am committed to the people throughout the neighborhood who come here. I talk to people who say their dad or granddad came in here. I think it’s important that people have a history here.”

She didn’t hang the new sign, signifying it was “Rosie’s,” right away.

“It took six months to change the sign, because I had a lot of more important things to do. Everything in the bar was broke.

“Only half the grill worked. The kegerator didn’t work. The refrigerator didn’t work. It was more important to have cold beer than to have the sign.

“And the work’s still going on. We just got done replacing the entire roof in the walk-in cooler.”

There will be a few more updates. And a lot more years for Tia Rose Mirenda at Rosie’s.

“The best thing about this is I never say ‘Oh, I’m going to work.’ I know it’s my job, but it’s not computing that way to me. Do what you love, and you never work a day in your life.”

She admits her love of Woodbine has her pondering perhaps another bar or business here. “I really love this community and want to be part of its improvement.”

Tia’s bright smile lights up Rosie’s when customer John Olert comes into the bar.

She climbs the short distance to her feet and embraces the mechanical engineer who comes here, he says, at least twice a week. “I followed Tia here from M.L. Rose,” he says, before sitting down for a late breakfast on this early summer afternoon.

As Tia sits back down, the tattoo of St. Barbara disappears again beneath our table.

She smiles. “This is definitely what I wanted: A shit dive bar with great food.”

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