It’s hard to tell if the delicious smells or the boisterous laughs coming from the kitchen are the first things you notice when entering Big Al’s Deli, but both make you feel at home.
Patrons can grab a seat at one of four linoleum tables draped in plastic covers featuring bright lemons. But the best seats are the faded stools that provide a front-row view to the choreographed chaos of Al Anderson’s work.
“I call the food Southern food with a twist,” says Anderson with a big smile. “That twist is usually spice. I try to make food that nobody else in Nashville is doing. And if someone copies me, I just try to switch it up and do something different.”
Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, Anderson says he sort of fell into the business when he opened Big Al’s Deli in the Salemtown neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee, nearly nine years ago. The food industry was a pivotal part of his early childhood.
“When I was a kid, my dad bought a bar, and my mother bought an ice cream shop,” recalls Anderson. “So at one point, I was making pizza, strawberry sundaes and banana boats at 11 years old. That was my first introduction into the food business.”
When the current space for Big Al’s Deli became available, Anderson knew the 100-year-old building came with challenges. “There was a small, little hole in the window, but everything else was padded up. All that was in this place was a hood and a sink.”
Anderson bought what he calls “collected items,” such as mismatched coffee cups, plates and silverware to save money. The promotional mugs from long-forgotten businesses give the place personality. But his other collected items, like the dual convection oven and refrigerator, gave Anderson headaches. The second-hand equipment was cheaper than purchasing new, but it would often break or wasn’t energy efficient, costing Anderson a lot of money to run it 12 to 14 hours daily.
“In the middle of COVID-19, I’m struggling to stay afloat. Seventy-five percent of my business is corporate catering, which disappeared with the pandemic. The only thing that didn’t disappear was the bills. They still came.”
Carolyn Greer, TVA EnergyRight senior program manager, says the mission of CCG is to focus on small businesses in communities that are often overlooked. “TVA has built a mission of service,” says Greer. “When you meet people like Al [Anderson], you see what a game-changer it is for them to come to work, save $500 a month on their bills and not have to use old equipment. The temperature is cool when they come to work and when they leave work. Things like that have been beneficial for these mom-and-pop places. It is worth it.”
“The benefits are, first of all, unbelievable,” says an excited Anderson. “I made very good biscuits. Now, with this new oven, I make fantastic biscuits. Buying equipment or getting new lighting was never in my budget. It was in my wish budget. But there’s no money tree in my backyard.”
Greer says partnering with NES helped them provide Anderson with a new, energy-efficient double convection oven, a three-ton air-conditioning unit and LED lights inside and outside the deli.
“We are public power. A governmental agency that serves the people,” says Antonio Carroll, NES representative. Carroll helped NES select several small businesses to participate in the CCG pilot. “To see the impact of Community Centered Growth around this neighborhood is just phenomenal because you’re seeing your neighbors being uplifted. You’re seeing your community being uplifted. You’re being able to help folks who are helping themselves and help those who want to continue to help the neighborhood that they serve.”
Ed’s Fish and Pizza House, just a mile and a half down the road from Big Al’s, also participated in the CCG program. The drive-thru establishment is tucked in the corner of J.B. Todd and Buchannan Street in North Nashville. It recently celebrated 50 years in business and is now managed by 24-year-old Anthony Williams.
“My great-uncle opened this place with his son, and they served fried fish with a side of mustard, hot sauce, pickles and onions. It was a new thing on the scene back in 1972, and it sort of became normal,” says Williams.
While their recipe hasn’t changed much in the decades that followed, a few other things have. Some of the equipment, such as their HVAC and lighting, were no longer efficient and put a strain on the small business’s monthly utility bills. Williams says he couldn’t believe it when EnergyRight and NES approached him to participate in CCG. “The work they did would most likely not have happened. After they put in the new HVAC, there was a 20% decrease in our energy bill.”
Carroll says many small businesses participating in CCG work with very tight budgets. If any were to close, their communities would feel the loss. “Ed’s is a multigenerational owner of this restaurant location,” says Carrol. “It’s transformational for the community. It’s also amazing for us to help this business continue on its successful path and help them reduce their energy load.”
Greer hopes the long-term impact of CCG will not only sustain these businesses for years to come but also show a different side of their utility. “TVA and NES are not just power providers. We have this mission of service to be more than just this bill that comes in the mail.”
“Just to know that TVA took the initiative to step out and do that for small businesses, it’s kind of mind-blowing,” says Williams.
Anderson also agrees. “EnergyRight and NES care, and that’s a rarity these days. You care, and it makes a big difference.”