VOL. 37 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 16, 2013
The King's new court
By Brad Schmitt
In his heyday, Jody Faison’s employees called him “King,” and Faison indeed ruled – and, in many ways, created – Nashville’s modern-day restaurant scene.
In the 1980s, Faison began launching innovative eateries, starting with Faison’s in Hillsboro Village. The King also founded 12th & Porter, Iguana, Jody’s and Café 123, among others, each creating a buzz and attracting its own unique clientele.
Faison – who struggled with payroll taxes, substance abuse and divorce from the woman who also became his business and creative partner – eventually dismantled his empire, completely by 2004.
Then, Faison, married to a second wife and father to his “second litter,” went to law school. At 54, he is now beginning his second career in a humble office on Third Avenue North, 25 yards from Printer’s Alley after passing the Tennessee bar exam in April.
The Nashville Ledger talked with him about his journey from Nashville’s restaurant king to new lawyer:
Q: You do hear sometimes when your name comes up that Jody lost everything to drugs and alcohol.
A: “That’s not really true. That’s not really true. People love to drink with the owner, you know? People would sit down and you’d keep the doors open, later than 3 a.m. You might’ve even been there with us on such an occasion.’’
Q: So true.
A: “So then, when I got sober, at about 11 p.m., everybody else is sitting there getting a little drunk, and I’m stone-cold sober. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I worked my ass off those last five years. It wasn’t like I was buying people drinks and bopping them on the shoulder and that kind of thing.
“Another myth was that “he put all his money into cocaine or he snorted up the business.” That’s not true at all. To be honest with you, I was a wino. The problem with the businesses was payroll taxes. It was not blowing money on drugs.’’
Q: So what happened?
A: “I just did not have the management staff to run six restaurants and put in a new lunch and dinner every spring. I just didn’t have the creative energy to spread among the six. And I had not built a management team. That comes from being an English major, and from growing the company too fast.
Faison has gone from Fayetteville “hillbilly” to restaurateur to attorney after passing the Tennessee bar exam in April. -- Michelle Morrow | Nashville Ledger
“So half the restaurants were doing really well and half the restaurants were draining us dry. We gradually sold them off to keep rolling.’’
Q: Six restaurants including ….
A: “Yeah, Jules, that might’ve been my nemesis right there. I opened Jules and Jody’s [in Cummins Station] at the same time, both multi-million dollar investments. That’s ridiculous.’’
Q: Let’s go backward. You grew up in the country.
A: “I’m a hillbilly. I grew up in Fayetteville, Tennessee, owned a drug store there where my father owned a drug store there on the square that his father had owned and his father before him. A prosperous little drug store on the square. Everybody went there.
“Then I got a scholarship to Vanderbilt to come play football. I really was not that into football. I had ability, but it wasn’t my heart’s desire, ya know? I didn’t realize at the time that you could be an athlete and you could also write songs and poems. At the time, I thought you could either be a jock or you could be a cool musical kinda guy.
“I wanted to go in the direction, hey, I want to be a songwriter. I got to Vanderbilt, and that was a rude awakening for a hillbilly. My mother tells the story that she said, “OK, you need to go buy your school clothes,” and I went down to the fair store and I bought two pairs of overalls and I said, ‘OK, I’m ready to go.’ So I went to Vanderbilt with two pairs of overalls, sometimes with a shirt underneath, and sometimes not.
“In Fayetteville, that was cool. I was sort of a city boy in Fayetteville. At Vanderbilt, totally different story. It was an adjustment.’’
Q: When did your restaurant empire begin?
A: “I bought the first restaurant two weeks after I graduated from college. It was a little health food restaurant, and I wanted a bar. I saw an ad in the paper. Unique restaurant for sale, $7,100. That was cheap. You couldn’t buy a car for that. It was in a great little old house. I could sleep upstairs.’’
Q: Where was that?
A: “That was Faison’s. We put a bar in there. We’d do health food for lunch and dinner and, at 11, we’d have a happy hour, with fraternity guys I still knew. They got me through until I learned how to cook, basically.’’
Q: What happened in 1998-99?
A: “I think I bought a bar because I liked to drink. In retrospect, I was drinking alcoholically since I was 11. Something was missing in my soul, and I was very attracted to the restaurant business because it covered a lot of my addictions. Food is the one I’m still struggling with. I had no idea – hard drinker, hard partier, having a great time.
“In 1998, I had a manager, and she got my butt in a car and took me down to Birmingham and got me into treatment. And, fortunately, I’ve been clean ever since. I was ready, I think. I’d had enough.
“A lot was going on. I was having trouble with the marriage and the restaurants needed lots of work and payroll things were going nuts, and it was time.’’
Q: What happened next?
A: “I got divorced. I lost some of my good management people. Once momentum gets going in the wrong direction, it’s really hard to change it. 12th & Porter was still rockin’, and Café 123 was doing pretty well.
“We were paying old bills from Faison’s and Jules, and Jody’s was kind of a drain. We never could get going there.’’
Q: How did it feel to no longer be the King?
A: “It felt bad. All of a sudden, I don’t own any restaurants. It was my identity. It was how I saw myself. It’s what I did. But you know what? I got over it. I needed to find something to do but people weren’t as anxious to hire a crusty old restaurant man like myself as I thought they might. I thought I had plenty of experience and I could help people.’’
Q: Why law school?
A: “I liked Clarence Darrow. I read all his biographies. I thought it was cool. I liked the fact that he was an advocate for the people who were getting screwed by the system. And he was smart and clever and fast on his feet.
“I loved law school. And I really couldn’t think of anything else to do. And I’d heard about the YMCA law school (now the Nashville School of Law) my entire life.
“I talked to my friend Adam Dread, and he said, “Do it. You’re not gonna be the oldest person there.”
“And I loved it. I don’t think I would’ve liked it at 22. But at 48, 50, loved it….
“Things change after you go through all this and you lose some friends. You get a little better sense of what’s meaningful and what’s important, and what you want to cherish and what you want to hold close to ya. A lot of false pride falls out after I’d gone through some of the stuff I’d gone through.
“I missed so much. Being home and studying and watching these two little guys [his sons] roll around. And it’s a totally different way of life.’’
Q: Any concerns about being a lawyer?
A: “I want to start the career with some sort of balance, which is not my forte. I want to just get in and go 100 miles an hour until I have a caseload of clients.’’
Q: What kind of lawyer will you be?
A: “The plan was and is to specialize in restaurant industry needs. We’re gonna help ’em get a liquor license, getting up to codes, working on leases, reading leases, helping buy property. That feels real comfortable to me. I know a lot of those people.
“I know the issues they’re going through. I know both sides of them. I’ve been filling out those forms for 25 years.’’