About the Restaurant
☆ Boathouse Rotisserie and Grill ☆
In life, he knows that the potential return on an investment must at least be equal to the associated risk.
A pair of tremendously successful Chattanooga area restaurants, the Canyon Grill and the Boathouse Rotisserie & Raw Bar, are evidence of Haygood's skill in running a successful enterprise. Risk? He knows a thing or two about it. However, for this entrepreneur it is simply another variable to be assessed and overcome. His recipe for success includes a cup of native business acumen, a pinch of luck, a dash of timing, and a heaping spoonful of help from friends and family.
"The way I got into the restaurant business is pretty simple," Lawton smiled. "I went temporarily insane! I had never really thought about owning a restaurant, but in the late 1970s interest rates skyrocketed, and I was in the business of buying and selling real estate. All of a sudden, there was nothing available because interest rates put me out of business, and I was sort of looking for a job and asking, 'What am I gonna do now?'"
Haygood was living in Dallas, Texas, at the time, and it seemed a road trip to the Gulf Coast was the best course of action to take. He found himself at the bar of a waterfront restaurant, enjoying the scenery and the refreshments, but there was just one problem. "The food was horrible," he remembered. "I guess I thought I was being cute when I called the waitress over and asked who owned the place. I really wanted to complain, but she told me a guy had just bought it along with a dock and some boats and that he was looking to get rid of the restaurant. She said, 'Are you interested?' I said, 'Well, I might be.' About 10 minutes later here comes this old codger with a lease in his hand. He asked me what kind of restaurant I would put in the place, and I said a wood-burning grill. Nobody had ever done that in a restaurant environment, and he told me I would make millions. The next thing you know, 30 minutes later I was in the restaurant business."
Lawton found early success not only with his restaurant but also with the woodburning grill. He began selling the grill systems and rubbing elbows with the rich and famous in the culinary arts, even the likes of Chef Wolfgang Puck. During the height of his grill selling venture, he returned to Dallas and opened a successful restaurant there. Eventually, though, serving two masters became a difficult proposition.
"I decided I could turn the restaurant over to a manager, and I was going to be handling the grill business," he said. "I was taking money into one pocket, and the restaurant was going down the tubes. The savings and loan crisis hit about that time, and I had decided again that I was going to be a land baron, buying real estate. I was making money, and then all of a sudden, I wasn't making money. I was upside down and lost my restaurant and the grill company." Haygood sold his wood-burning grill enterprise to Old Hickory Charcoal Company, which subsequently moved its manufacturing operation to Sweetwater, Tennessee. Part of the deal had been for Lawton to work with the company and fulfill a two-year non-competition agreement. He began to spend more time in East Tennessee, not a great distance from the place where he was born "on the backside of Lookout Mountain," fishing with friends and reconnecting.
"I thought I was too old to get back into the restaurant business, so I got my CFP (certified financial planner) designation and worked with small businesses," he said. "I was successful at that, and it was a whole lot easier money than the restaurant business, but I hated it, to tell you the truth. I didn't like sales calls, and nobody ever said thank you. You can give somebody a $100,000 life insurance check, and they don't say thank you. But, when you give them a good piece of chicken, they say it was the best thing that ever happened to them. I like that pat on the back."
It turns out for Lawton, that mother knew best. For months, she had been persistently asking her son to revive the old family business.
"She had this old ham curing plant up in New Salem on the Trenton-Lafayette Highway," he recalled. "She cured ham and bacon and served breakfast and ham sandwiches in that little place. Well, she got old and had to close it down. She called me every day, telling me I should reopen that place. Somebody did reopen it, and they stayed about two months. Then she really did put some pressure on me. I told my wife, Karen, 'Look, I know I can put out good food. We'll get the cute people in there, and it will sort of be the place to come on weekends. Then we'll catch somebody from Atlanta that wants to move to the country and have a little business. We'll sell it, and that will be the end of that."
Lawton and Karen named their little venture the Canyon Grill. That was 10 years ago. Although he had told his mother time after time that the location was terrible, the actual problem was the opposite. Once the doors opened, they could hardly handle the business. And mother's loud "I told you so!" rang in his ears.
Today, the Canyon Grill has become a destination. Its menu regularly includes the freshest of fish, which Lawton believes are the most popular dinner selections, and USDA prime steaks. Operating with limited hours, Wednesday through Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. (10 p.m. during the summer months), the Canyon Grill is a perennial favorite. Karen runs the business side of the restaurant, including the decor, menu, artwork, landscaping, marketing and advertising. Many of the restaurant's employees have been there since the beginning, and Lawton has complete confidence in them. He actually cooked on the kitchen line for the first five years, but has not been in the kitchen to work since then.
"It really is a special place," Lawton reflected. "We have eaten all over this country, and I think I know good restaurants from bad restaurants. Canyon Grill is definitely in the top 50 restaurants in this country. There is no doubt in my mind, and I'm not the only one of that opinion. It's that good. When you walk in the door, there is something about it — the music, the employees, the smell. It gives you the feeling you are in the right place. We will never change it. It is one of a kind."
On a given evening, it is not unusual to find a limousine or two parked outside the Canyon Grill, even though the atmosphere is casual and come as you are. Last year, the Haygoods finally put up a sign to identify the location, but that may not have been a real necessity. People heading to the Canyon Grill usually know where they are going. When Lawton and Karen decided to open the Boathouse Rotisserie & Raw Bar on Riverfront Parkway five years ago, the thought process was completely different from the Canyon Grill concept. After investing about $2 million in the demolition of an existing building and the construction of a completely new one which takes full advantage of strikingly beautiful vistas of the Tennessee River, they settled on a menu which touts "Food Styles From Around The Gulf." Lawton reasoned, "This is a totally different concept. This is a lower price range product — not lower quality — but chicken is cheaper than prime beef. We still buy the best you can buy, but it is just stuff that doesn't cost so much. We sell more sandwiches here and very few high-end products. People come to eat, see the view a little bit, and beat it. We started out with a very simple menu at the Boathouse and expanded that to fill gaps, get the cooking line working right, and diversify some."
The two most popular items on the Boathouse bill of fare are Voodoo Chicken, which originated with a Haitian recipe, and Grilled Tilapia, which is a delicate, farmraised white fish. Grilling the tilapia was a bit of a challenge because the fish was difficult to handle over the wood-burning grill. So Haygood found a solution with a Chinese strainer, about 12 inches across with holes in it, which allows the special qualities of the wood-burning grill to come through with a blend of arugula, olive oil, and garlic. Other specialties include Texas Brisket and Po' Boy sandwiches from New Orleans.
"We will do some seasonal things on the menu at the Boathouse and throw a little something in now and then, but the Canyon Grill changes the menu every day. That is just the way the product comes in up there," commented Lawton. "At the Boathouse, we deal with more traditional products and stay pretty much with the same menu." As much as Lawton loves to tinker, he has no intention of upsetting the apple cart with revisions at either the Canyon Grill or the Boathouse. Neither is likely to see a second location or a major change in presentation. A key element of the success in both restaurants is quality personnel, and the owners acknowledge the contribution of the 62 Boathouse and 13 Canyon Grill employees.
"We have really fine people, and once it works, I try to stay out of the way," Lawton said. "Once young people are developing and have gotten very strong, you have to be careful about overmanaging good managers. Get out of their way and let them do their job. When we first opened the Boathouse, it was rough because we got way outside our budget. We had to make personal sacrifices, physically working here and living in a cubby hole downstairs, but we survived." Philosophically, the Haygoods take a simple approach to their livelihood. They delight in their investment in young people and in watching them mature, taking on greater responsibility. They also take pride in the other aspects of what makes a dining experience exceptional.
"Buy a great product. Try not to screw it up. Hire great people and treat them the best you can so that they don't leave. You can't have employee turnover and have a good restaurant. That is impossible," Lawton asserted. "I would feel very insecure if I thought our business would fall apart every time I walk out the door. We kind of grow our own people here, and we enjoy seeing them develop."
Although the Canyon Grill and the Boathouse Rotisserie & Raw Bar are not likely to see any noticeable changes in the future, the Haygoods have embarked on another local venture. Sugar's Ribs, where the menu includes the best in barbecue chicken, ribs, and pork shoulder. People, Lawton says, are more passionate about their barbecue than any other food in America. The menu does not include steaks. After all, it is a barbecue restaurant — not a restaurant that serves barbecue. There is a distinct difference. Identifying a new opportunity and taking advantage of it are challenges Lawton Haygood relishes. "I have probably been thinking about this barbecue restaurant idea all my life," he laughed. "I am really of the great barbecue cult group, and I think Sugar's Ribs could be a nationally recognized barbecue restaurant."
Slowing down is definitely not on the agenda for the Haygoods. They are having too much fun. Best of all, their enjoyment of restaurant ownership and operation is apparent in the people and the products they serve.