Hobnob Corner Restaurant

by Cindy Steele
photo by George Bredewater

Betsy and Warren Cole own and operate the Hobnob Corner Restaurant located in Nashville where Van Buren meets Main Street.

The Coles have run the restaurant for 22 years in the Taggart building, the oldest commercial building in Brown County. Built in 1868 the structure was first used as a dry goods grocery and sundries store. It later evolved into Miller’s Drugstore and fountain service. Original oak fixtures filled with authentic apothecary items and the soda fountain counter remain as remnants of the building’s past.

Early photographs of the building and streets of Nashville taken by famed photographer Frank Hohenberger hang in the main dining area. The photos remind you of a time when the artists and natives gathered there during the early part of the previous century.

The Hobnob continues to serve as a meeting place for tourists and locals. Its prime location in the center of Nashville’s commerce invites a steady stream of customers. Of course, an interesting menu and good service factor into the Hobnob’s success.

The menu reflects Warren’s longtime interest in food. “I’ve always liked to go to restaurants. I have always been interested in food, cooking and memories of it. That kind of thing permeated my life way back.”

Warren’s roots in Brown County food service started in the early ’70s when he was in law school at Indiana University. He worked part time at the Rocking Horse, a tiny place where Michael’s Flowers is now, on Jefferson Street. “A lot of what I learned there and did there is carried on in this place as much as we can,” said Warren.

Warren and Betsy bought the business from another couple, Bob and Liz Hamilton, in December of 1979. Warren was working at the Walnut Room restaurant in Columbus and Betsy was teaching. Warren was more interested in operating an upscale restaurant like the Walnut Room but thought the Hobnob might provide a foundation for other ventures.

At that time the front room had its own kitchen and served a simple breakfast and lunch menu. The back room’s kitchen served pizza at night. The food was bland, the service was lacking, and the interior needed work, but the place was busy.

Bob Hamilton’s demonstration of his cream of potato soup recipe still amuses Warren. “What you did was get a pot of water and you dumped in dehydrated onions. Then you added boxed mashed potatoes and salt and pepper. And then you put in milnot (a milk substitute).”

The Coles immediately started making radical changes to the menu when they took over.

The potato soup is now made from a much more elaborate recipe with real potatoes, cream, and stock base. All the soups are made from scratch. So are all the baked goods except for the English muffins.

“We try, to the extent that we can, to make things here, to do them from scratch with interesting ingredients within the limits of a very high volume kind of business,” explained Warren.

They serve fresh locally-grown vegetables as the season permits. Organic gardeners Dale and Sandy Rhoades grow many of the Hobnob’s green salad ingredients, squash, sprouts, rhubarb, asparagus, and “stunning” heirloom tomatoes. Another local grower, Rebecca Denman, produces the tomatoes used in sandwiches.

The Hobnob is well-known for its special sauces and seasonings. The popular broiled Atlantic salmon is marinated with a mustard herb sauce. The Mandarin chicken has a tangy sauce made from soy, orange juice, and tomato.

The Hobnob’s growing appeal justified an expansion in 1982. The landlord added space to the back of the building for a bigger kitchen and since then the business has “truly mushroomed.”

In 1985, the Coles decided to open up a second Hobnob in downtown Columbus. “The restaurant in Columbus was to be my upscale restaurant. It ran into the same kind of problem that the Walnut Room and others had run into, which is business over there fluctuates depending on the health of Cummins,” said Warren.

After six years of breaking even, they closed the Columbus operation.

“I’ve had my glory. We got a little mention in Gourmet Magazine and nice reviews in different papers. It was a great experience.”

For now Warren’s interest in upscale dining is focused on the Big Brothers Big Sisters charity dinner held at the Hobnob every January. “That’s a chance to dress the place up and really think out a menu—match it with some wine and put out something very different, very unusual.”

Restaurant employees, former employees, suppliers, friends, and family volunteer their time to support this successful event.

Warren guesses that maybe over 3,000 employees have worked at the Hobnob over the years. Out of those some long term employees have made a difference. Diana Cole started out in the early ’80s to make a little extra money and now she runs the front part of the business. Ernie Baker has worked in the back for almost 20 years. Curtis Gritton has washed dishes for about 15 year, and Teresa Brown has done most of the baking for many years.

Betsy took over the business in Nashville when Warren operated the restaurant in Columbus. Since then she has been much more involved in the kitchen end of the restaurant. You are more likely to see Warren because he concentrates on the service end of the restaurant, but Betsy is in the back overseeing the kitchen details.

Two of the Cole’s sons, Drew and Eric, work at the Hobnob. Their third son Sean will be starting the sixth grade this fall so it will be a while before he works there but he does help out at the charity dinner.

The Coles enjoy the demanding pace of the restaurant business. Warren said it is a great way to “discharge energy.”

Now that some key employees can manage operations, Betsy and Warren do find time to enjoy their hobbies and interests. Warren likes to play golf, tend their garden, fly fish, and read. Betsy works on a minature dollhouse project and also tends the garden. They travel when they can get away.