Chattanooga Yellow Deli Reunion Draws Crowd

Sunday, April 16, 2006 - by Robert T. Nash
Yellow Deli founders Gene and Marsha Spriggs. Click to enlarge.
Yellow Deli founders Gene and Marsha Spriggs. Click to enlarge.
- photo by Robert T. Nash

A reunion held Easter Sunday for former employees and patrons of the Yellow Deli drew a sizeable crowd. The event, which occurred in the shadow of one of the restaurant's original Chattanooga locations, offered food, fellowship and a glimpse into what the future might hold for the one-time area dining fixture.

"Coming back to Chattanooga is an opportunity for people to see who we are and what we turned out to be," said Gene Spriggs, who founded the original Yellow Deli with his wife Marsha in 1973. "This is where it all started for us."

Mr. Spriggs, who is a founding member of Twelve Tribes, an evangelical separatist group that practices communal living and holds their own worship services, said he is still devoted to spreading a message of positive spirituality. He also dismissed the concerns of those who view the somewhat controversial church group as controlling and cultish.

"If you don't have a positive heart, it's easy to believe the negative," he said. "That's the message of Proverbs 17:4, which we always use to refute such concerns. We are not a cult, we just had the misfortune of coming together during the time of Jim Jones and the mess in Guyana."

According to community materials distributed onsite, the original Yellow Deli restaurants were intended to be tools for teaching valuable life and trade skills. Chattanooga resident Tim Pendergrafs said he originally took notice of the restaurant after reading a copy of the community's free newspaper, which is still published quarterly.

"I received a copy of the Light Brigade Freepaper," the Baylor graduate said. "It quoted John 8:31, which says 'If you continue in my Word, then you are my disciples indeed.' I was intrigued, so I went to check it out. That was over 30 years ago, and here I am today."

Mr. Pendergrafs said he met Ruth, his wife-to-be, while both were working third shift at the popular Brainerd Road flagship location, one of six that would eventually be opened in Chattanooga and the surrounding area.

"We will celebrate 29 years of marriage later this year," he said. "We have seven children and four grandchildren."

Devotee Jeremy Decoste, 24, whose community name is "Challamiysh," and his 20-year-old wife Sarah Lang, said they came to the Twelve Tribes community after learning of it on the Internet.

"According to Moses, our Father is only concerned with two or three firsthand witnesses," he said, adding "And one of the commandments id 'Thou shall not bear False Witness.' When I read the misinformation that is out there, I decided to see for myself what this is all about. It's the only way, if you really want to know the truth."

Ms. Lang, whose community name is "Emunah," said her own desire to join the community was also inspired by specific verses from The Book of Acts.

"Basically, we knew that the true people of God would come together to live and spread the Word," she said. "So we set off looking for the people who were doing that, and here we are."

A large walk-through tent display featuring a presentation of the community's beliefs, history and vision drew numerous visitors. Not surprisingly, the undeniably appealing food proved to be a mainstay of the event. The miniature Yellow Deli replica next door - complete right down to the colorful menu drawn in brightly-colored chalk - did a brisk business purveying drinks, sandwiches, sweets and other menu items.

"We bake our own bread and use only the finest meats and cheeses," said Paulette Kendrick, who along with her husband Rick, has 35 years of professional food service experience. "We are committed to wholesome, healthy and organic eating, and the bottom line is it's delicious."

"It's really still the same great Yellow Deli food served in the same great atmosphere," said Mr. Kendrick. "We steam the sandwiches, and people are much more cognitive now about the value of eating good food. We've also added new items such as custom-blended teas and smoothies."

Ed Wiseman, who was involved in operating the original Chattanooga eateries, said the group plans to have a portable booth at the upcoming 4 Bridges Art Festival and the Riverbend Festival. He also said a new Yellow Deli will opening soon at an as-yet unidentified area location.

"We're excited," he said. "We have some great possibilities, and we plan to announce our new Chattanooga location at the second Yellow Deli reunion, which will be held Sunday, June 18, the day after the 2006 Riverbend Festival ends."

Additional activities included live music, group dancing, special presentations on the history of the Yellow Delis and an open forum to discuss community issues. The sunny and mild Easter weather and Warner Park rose gardens provided a pleasant backdrop for the event. A crowd of approximately 200 people had arrived by mid-afternoon, including a large community contingent that came in a pair of vintage double-decker buses. The event was scheduled to run until nightfall.

Readers may learn more about Gene Spriggs and the Yellow Deli restaurants by visiting on the Worldwide Web. More information about the Twelve Tribes is available at

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