Lawton Haygood made his mark on the Chattanooga-area's restaurant scene with three successful eateries: Canyon Grill, on the Georgia side of Lookout Mountain not far from Trenton, the Boathouse Rotisserie & Raw Bar on the Tennessee River and Sugar's Ribs on the side of Missionary Ridge. And by May, Haygood plans to add a fourth restaurant, the Sidetrack, in a renovated Huddle House restaurant on Hixson Pike.
But Haygood's entry to the restaurant business came pretty much by accident one day in 1978, after Haygood drank "way too many beers" at what he said was a little run-down restaurant on a channel next to the beach in Port Aransas, Texas, near Corpus Christi.
Haygood, who just turned 73, was in his early 30s then and worked in Dallas, Texas, in real estate and finance — which was tanking, since interest rates were soaring. So he'd gone to the beach with a companion to clear his head.
The restaurant was empty, and Haygood wasn't happy with the fried shrimp the waitress brought him.
"As she sets it down — it smells really bad," Haygood said. "I said, 'Ma'am, I don't want to eat this.' She says — so help me, these are the very words — 'I wouldn't eat it, neither.'"
That soon led to a conversation with the owner, who asked Haygood how he'd run the restaurant. Haygood, a fisherman who liked to grill at home, pointed to the spot where he'd install a mesquite wood fire pit.
"I would cook the fresh fish off the boats right over the fire there," he remembers telling the owner. "When I said that about the pit, he said, 'Oh son, you'll get rich.' And I was suckered right in."
"Thirty minutes later, I was in the restaurant business," said Haygood, who struck a deal to buy the place. "I'd never thought about owning a restaurant, until that second. True story."
'Made mistakes to start with'
Haygood, who grew up on the back side of Lookout Mountain and is a graduate of Dade County High School in Trenton, Ga., and the University of Georgia, wasn't a complete stranger to running an eatery.
"I had a little bit of the taste of the business, because my mom had a little old country grocery store right next to [what's now] Canyon Grill. She made sandwiches and stuff like that," he said. "So I wasn't afraid of it."
Haygood moved fast to buy the Port Aransas restaurant. He and his companion flew back to Dallas, where Haygood sold a handful of rental houses he owned so he could invest the proceeds in his new venture.
"I had more money than I had sense at that point," he said. "I made a lot of mistakes to start with."
"One year, Hurricane Allen came in," Haygood said. "It didn't do a lot of damage, but it ran all the business off. Another season, we had the Campeche oil spill. An oil well down in Mexico blew up, and it paved the beaches, so all the business was gone again."
But Haygood did grill fresh-caught fish over mesquite — including such mainstays as red snapper, redfish and flounder and seasonal fish such as king mackerel and mahi-mahi.
One source of fresh fish was the party boats that take scores of tourists fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Oftentimes, people doing that didn't really want the fish," Haygood said. "They were just doing it for the sport of it. So they'd want to sell their fish. So we'd get it straight off the boat."
After two tourist seasons, Haygood decided that Port Aransas wasn't the place to be.
"I took what little money I had left, went back to Dallas and found an old run-down restaurant I could get in there," he said. "A lot of my employees went with me."
The Dallas restaurant was in a "horrible location; a strip joint on each side," Haygood said.
'On to something' with grill innovations
But he knew he was onto something with his then-pioneering forays of grilling over mesquite wood. It caught the attention of chef, culinary consultant and food writer Anne Lindsay Greer (now McCann), who helped spur the Southwestern cuisine movement.
"She was sort of the mama of Southwestern cuisine," Haygood said. "She really brought Southwestern cuisine to the forefront."
Anne Greer wanted Haygood to build a mesquite grill for what was then Loews Anatole Hotel, a new, 27-story hotel in Dallas that's now a Hilton.
There were problems with using a pit grill in restaurants, Haygood said. For example, ash would build up and bury the coals, so cooks would have to dump on more wood or stir up the ashes. Pit grills were OK for steaks, but it was hard to cook fish and other delicate food.
So Haygood had some ideas to improve the design, including putting doors on the front of the grill, like a wood stove, so mesquite could be fed into it without having to raise the grill. Other features included a pan to catch ashes and air ports and tubes to help the wood burn evenly.
"Just some country boy technology," Haygood said. "I got thinking about how I could solve those problems."
Haygood had a draftsman friend sketch a drawing that Haygood used to make an ad.
"I put a copy of that in the restaurant business news, and I'm not kidding you, I had over 500 responses on that," he remembers. "I mean, the biggest names in the country. [Chef] Wolfgang Puck was one of them. Gramercy Tavern in New York City."
"I had not even built it. I'm like, what the hell do I do now?" Haygood remembers.
That led Haygood to find an investor, get patents for his ideas and use a number of different companies to build grills, including one in Tennessee that brought him back to this area.
Installing wood grills around the United States, Canada and, in a few cases, Europe, allowed Haygood to see what worked in restaurants and what didn't.
Training, good pay keep turnover low
Haygood said he opened Canyon Grill in 1995, "really to just entertain myself."
"I'm gonna open a restaurant, and I'm going to do foods that the chefs cook when they go home," he said of Canyon Grill, which he sold a few years ago to a married couple who were longtime employees, Johnny and Jessica Holland. "That's what you'll find still there."
Haygood thinks the Boathouse Rotisserie & Raw Bar is probably Chattanooga's busiest independent restaurant. But getting it established wasn't easy.
"My wife and I, we lived downstairs at Boathouse for the first 18 months, that's how tight things were," he said.
The restaurant industry is notorious for high turnover of young employees. One of the things Haygood learned over the years is the importance of training employees and paying them well so they'll stay.
"We do not have much turnover," he said. "If you've got new people you're working with, they make multiple errors."
Servers at Boathouse get about seven weeks of training, including learning all the table numbers, the seat numbers and the menu.
"We want them to eat everything on the menu and be able to draw rough pictures of it and describe it," Haygood said.
While the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour in Tennessee, Boathouse pays at least $10 an hour, he said.
"We don't do that because we're nice guys; we do that because we want better people," Haygood said.
Haygood has a wife, Lily Haygood, and three children by a previous marriage. He's got a grandson who's wanted to be a chef since he was a little kid who works at the Boathouse.
"He's a very talented, hard-working guy," Haygood said.
Scoring again with SideTrack
Haygood's not only a hit with Chattanooga-area diners, he's earned the respect of other restaurateurs, including Tim Hennen, who's spent 44 years involved with the Chattanooga restaurant scene.
"Lawton has done a great job," said Hennen, whose most recent venture is as a partner in Bones Smokehouse, which reopened this summer in East Brainerd after being forced to close in 2015 because of road-widening work. "He's a great restaurant operator and a great businessman."
Haygood hopes to score again with a new restaurant tentatively named SideTrack that he plans to open in May or June at 3514 Hixson Pike near Lupton Drive at the site of a former Huddle House followed by two other diner-style restaurants that failed.
The location — next to a railroad track, which explains the SideTrack name — doesn't worry Haygood, who's investing around $2 million to upgrade and expand the building. SideTrack will seat about 140 people, offer plenty of parking, he said, and serve wine, liquor, bottled beer and food cooked by wood fire.
"Is it a good location? We'll find out," said Haygood, who called the neighborhood home to "young, successful, hard-working people."
"I've always followed the principal that if you put out a great product and you make it at least convenient to get into with good parking, people will come," he said.
One of the restaurant's specialties will be grilled pizza that's cooked on a wood-fired grill. SideTrack also will have rotisserie chicken — that will be finished inside a wood-fired pizza oven.
Haygood joked, "I guess it doesn't make sense: We've got a pizza oven that we cook chicken in, and we've got a grill to cook pizza. But that's what we're doing."
SideTrack will probably be the last restaurant for Haygood. "After that, I'm going fishing, and that's it," he said.
This article appears in the February issue of Edge magazine, which is published by the Times Free Press.