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VOL. 36 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 6, 2012

Living the dream, preserving a legacy

Gabby’s owner learns a thing or two about success from his legendary predecessor

By Tim Ghianni

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Doug Havron smiles as cooks and servers bounce and harmonize to a mix of oldies and Motown blaring from the radio in the squat joint where, in 1981, Reggie Jackson bought humility while loading up on meat-and-three offerings.

“A happy worker is a good worker,” says Havron, scanning his Gabby’s Burgers & Fries crew, wearing their “Living the Dream” T-shirts, the closest semblance to uniforms visible in this 38-seat restaurant where Nashville history was made or made up.

For generations of Nashvillians, this building housed Hap Townes, an oasis of down-home southern cooking. Here James Beverly “Hap” Townes dished up hearty meat-and-three plates for 40 years after he and his dad, the original “Hap” – Garland Townes – opened the place at the end of World War II.

Havron is becoming an expert in that history, but he’s making his own, too. For him this cinderblock building is a launching pad for dreams, his own and – judging by T-shirt sales – those of others.

“These ‘Living the Dream’ T-shirts are some of my top sellers,” he says, pointing to a shelf-load on the back wall of his restaurant at Chestnut and Humphreys streets. “I guess a lot of people are living the dream, too.”

Havron was the first one to pull on one of these shirts, with the dream phrase on the front and Gabby’s logo on the back.

“I am living the dream right here,” he says, hustling to complete his part of the day’s cleanup quickly so he won’t be late picking up his daughter at school. The ability to do that routine family task is evidence of his personal dream come true.

Buying this building was a leap of faith off the fast track, opening the door eventually to an opportunity to abandon the 90-hour work weeks of the corporate restaurant world and live by his family-first rules.

He didn’t know then that, in addition to enjoying a more laid-back lifestyle and turning out some of the city’s best burgers and sweet potato fries, he would become proud curator of a legacy that thrived in this building for the decades it housed one of “old Nashville’s” most reliable and happy establishments.

He gleams, for example, when he talks about how Reggie Jackson, the biggest baseball star of his era, was treated just like everybody when Hap ran the place.

When The New York Yankees’ self-proclaimed “straw that stirs the drink” came here looking for down-home food, that’s just what he got. If he was looking for a place to eat unfettered by his own celebrity, he found that, too.

Sure, host Townes gave him a corner table so he wouldn’t be disturbed, but Jackson had to line up for food, just like Mickey Mantle had done during his many visits. Like Chet Atkins did almost daily, as well as other regulars such as Steve Wariner, Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Brenda Lee, Reba McEntire and Les Paul.

It was an egalitarian diner eagerly sought out by anyone with stomach set on empty.

“Back when the Sounds were the farm team for the New York Yankees, the Yankees were in for an exhibition game. This was back when Reggie was Mr. October,” says Hap historian Havron.

Jackson, whose sparring with well-oiled Yankees manager Billy Martin got almost as many headlines as hitting three home runs in a Series-clinching game or “incidental” hip action deflecting a sure-fire double-play, had arrived in town ahead of the rest of the Bronx Bombers and had food on his mind.

Farrell Owens, then vice president of operations and part owner of the Sounds, recalls that day clearly.

“Reggie says: ‘Farrell, we need to get something really good to eat,’ ” he recalls, adding Jackson had stayed at spring training longer for rehab. He and a trainer were meeting up with his teammates at Greer.

After establishing that Jackson was interested in “down-home” cooking, Owens said: “Reggie, we’re going to walk right over here behind the centerfield wall” to Hap Townes.

“Needless to say, Reggie turned some heads,” Owens says. “But we got in line like everyone else with those big, old plates.

“Reggie went through that food just like everything,” Owens says. “He says ‘I could eat another plate just like that.’”

So the superstar slugger got up and asked for more. Townes looked at the best-known baseball player on the planet “and he said ‘That’ll be another meal charge,’” Owens remembers.

Jackson gladly agreed to that condition and “Hap fixed him up another plate with a meat and three.”

Townes, almost 89 and happily retired in Brentwood, remembers that day. “When he got to his table, a guy said to him ‘Hey, fellow, anybody tell you look like Reggie Jackson?’”

Townes told the man it was no lookalike, but rather the real deal, in town to play in the ball yard up the street: Let the slugger alone and let him fuel up so he can demonstrate his Adirondack Big Stick batting skills to local baseball fans.

“When he’s done eating, Reggie says ‘Man I’m going to hit me a couple of homers today. I could really hit homers if I could eat like this every day,” Owens says.

Jackson hit only a deep foul ball in the exhibition, but the story illustrates what is special about Townes.

“Mr. Townes didn’t care if you were a big wig or a small wig,” Havron says. “He made sure that you got the same treatment. It was fair and honest treatment: ‘These are the rules. I’ll give you your money’s worth.’ “

Tracing and celebrating the legacy has been almost a treasure hunt for Havron, who bought the building without realizing its history. It was a neglected real estate bargain on the other side of the tracks from Nashville’s carefully manipulated marketing image.

“I didn’t remember it had been Hap Townes,” Havron recalls. “The price was right. The fact it was not in a great location was a perk in my world. You see, that meant it was going to be an inexpensive piece of property.

“The first time I started becoming slightly aware that something was peculiar about this building, I was talking to an electrician who lived in Mt. Juliet who I was asking to come do some work. I was trying to give him an explanation as to where the building was.”

Havron told the electrician it was near Greer Stadium. The electrician didn’t know where that was. Havron gave him some other landmarks. Still the electrician was confused.

“Then I told him it was off Chestnut. He said ‘Is it anywhere near the old Hap Townes building?’”

Three years later, Havron’s become Nashville’s greatest admirer of what Townes created, nurtured and nourished for four decades.

And the older man has become his mentor. “Mr. Townes told me ‘If you make sure that you give great food at a fair price, people will keep coming back, so you’ll do great,’” Havron says. “And that’s the truth in the restaurant world. If a customer walks out and think they paid $10 for $12 worth of food, they’ll come back.”

Havron lives by that truth whenever a customer steps through the doorway of the business named for his 6-year-old daughter Gabriella.

The importance of his family is also illustrated by the fact a person can order a Seamus cheeseburger (named for son Seamus, 4) or have the Coreen, a veggie burger named for Havron’s wife.

There’s even a “Tipper Dog,” named for a now-deceased family beagle.

“I haven’t named anything after myself, because that seems obnoxious,” he says.

Before health problems forced Hap Townes to sell out in ’85 (the business carried his name for a few more years before it was padlocked), this little joint was home to everyone from music stars to a genial-but-corrupt sheriff and his cronies.

Given the “everyone’s treated the same” philosophy, it’s not surprising Hap’s played a role in Nashville’s integration, as described by Havron: “My father (James T. Havron) was a public defender and later was a night court commissioner. He told me stories of coming to Hap Townes with African-Americans he worked with. There was a lot of angst in our society about integration back then. But he would come in and did not feel discomfort at all in bringing in a mixed-race group of people…. That was not the case in many restaurants back then.”

And his grandfather, State Rep. James C. Havron, “would tell us that they would adjust committee meetings depending on what was on the menu at Hap Townes. Monday might be meat loaf, Tuesday liver, Wednesday baked chicken. If it was meat loaf or baked chicken, they’d get their meetings done in time. If it was liver, they’d let the meetings run long.”

Havron smiles as he talks about the restaurant he first bought with plans to use as a commissary to supply what he envisioned as a rapidly growing fleet of coffee shops he was planning to franchise.

Love of family had him quickly abandoning that caffeine scheme.

“The children started coming and the family obligations kept on growing, and I realized with the help of my wife that I was going to miss my children’s lives. I was going to be one of those men that worked all the time and had plenty of money and never spent any time with their children.

“It’s great going out and paying cash for a brand-new car. It’s a great sensation. It feels nice. But I wasn’t seeing my children grow up. I would leave while they were still sleeping and got home in time to tuck them in good night.

“That wasn’t OK. I had to change it.”

By opening Gabby’s, he could carefully control his own work hours and environment.

The loyalty he hopes will flourish here is evident in an anecdote about the former tenant.

“The building was vacant for 15-16 years, and the flower beds were so overgrown and trashed out it was crazy. I was out there in the flower beds trying to rip out all the overgrown shrubs and trash, and this couple pulled up and they asked, ‘Is Hap Townes not here anymore?’”

He told them the spot was long gone. “They were just shattered. They were a married couple. They had a lot of their original dates when they first met at Hap Townes. They were celebrating their 25th or 30th anniversary.”

The couple had come from some northern city; he doesn’t remember which one.

“They had decided they were going to have their anniversary meal at Hap Townes. They said the whole last four or five hours in the car, they were talking about the food, all the good things about Hap Townes.

“The fact that people drove all this way, looking for a restaurant that has been out of business for 15 years, why, that’s over the top.”

Havron, realizing the treasure he owned, decided to solicit more information about the historic business that started in 1921 as a traveling “pie wagon” and eventually migrated to this worn stretch at the end of World War II.

“These men would pull me over and tell me stories about how great Mr. Townes was … They would tell me that their first job was washing out trash cans for the restaurant. They all wanted to be in the building again.

“I talked to many of Mr. Townes’ employees. He treated everybody fairly and honestly. Everybody loved working for him. They were very proud of where they worked.”

“People would stop them in the grocery store and say ‘Oh, you work at Hap Townes. What’s the secret of the stewed raisins?’ Anyone who ever visited the restaurant knows that stewed raisins were a Townes delight.

“The employees felt like rock stars because they worked at Hap Townes. To be able to create that and to give back to the community, well it is just stunning what he did.

“There are very few restaurants in Nashville where the employees are proud of where they work. He created that. “

The cheery harmonies and laughter of his own staff display that he has recreated that same type of proud teamwork.

And perhaps he’ll make enough memories here that one day a couple will come here for their anniversary burgers, sweet potato fries, a Tipper Dog and the new-to-the-menu milkshakes.

“I imagine there are very few restaurants where people would drive 12 hours to come and celebrate their wedding anniversary,” Havron says.

”It’s sad that our society doesn’t create things like that anymore. Everything is a chain. Everything is charts and diagrams. He didn’t think that way. People from the 1 percent to the 99 percent, all levels, will tell stories about Mr. Townes.

Johnny Cash would be playing all night and he’d call Mr. Townes and say ‘I know you don’t open until 7, but can we come in early?’

“He’d say, ‘oh, yeah, come on in.’ He’d be here at 4 in the morning to put the roast beef in. So he’d put (Cash and his cronies) over in a little table in the corner and he’d cook them some eggs and toast.”

Firemen and policemen also dropped in for quiet pre-dawn breakfast.

Sheriff Fate Thomas “and his crew would sit in there all day long. And the mayors would be there.”

“I think you could pretty much name anybody who has been in Nashville history and they are going to tell you about one of their visits. It was a place where they felt safe.”

While his business is burgers, he is trying to recapture that sense of sanctuary, where customers “have a place, a little piece of heaven, a little place where they can be happy and not worry about the other cares that happened in their day.”

In fact, he’d like the Chestnut Street railroad bridge – that leads to this building – to be named for Hap Townes. But, for the moment, at least, that’s an unlikely prospect, according to a brief conversation with Billy Lynch, public works director.

For now, though, the 46-year-old boss of Gabby’s is serving up burgers to an accompaniment of staff-voiced R&B, nurturing a legacy and hoping, in time, to equal it.

“Mr. Townes created magic in this little cinderblock building. I’m in awe of it,” he says. “I think I’m on the right track.”

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