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Clearing the Table

Jody Faison prepares his next course



It is a recent Saturday night at The Trace, the current buzz place where the IT crowd goes, and a wait for a table is an hour and a half. It is not the first time the Hillsboro Village site has been the IT place. Nearly two decades ago, the restaurant was called Faison's.

Across the street is the equally tony Sunset Grill, which is also popping with well-dressed customers. Within a radius of a couple of miles, Bound'ry, F. Scott's, Midtown Cafe, and Zola are also putting diners on long waiting lists or simply telling them to try another night.

Meanwhile, a few miles down Broadway at Cafe OneTwoThree, most of the tables in the room are full by 8 p.m., but a party of four may be seated within 10 minutes, depending on smoking preference. Nearby, 12th & Porter is buzzing with its usual youthful suspects; new arrivals there are told to expect a 20-minute wait. Meanwhile, at Jody’s in Cummins Station, the room starts emptying out by 9 p.m., a time when servers at Sunset, Trace, and Bound’ry are turning tables for a second round. By 9:30 at Jody’s, the swing band on stage plays to fewer than a dozen people.

At 10 p.m., Jody Faison comes out of the Jody’s kitchen dressed in sweat pants, sweat shirt, and a baseball cap turned backwards over his thick pile of curly black hair. He has always been big, but now he is in what he and his friends wryly call a ”large phase.“ His size has always made Jody stand out. It’s an inseparable aspect of the whole package, as if it takes that much chunk of guy to contain Jody’s ”presence,“ that aspect of rare personality that somehow, quite simply, attracts.

Jody looks tired, but he greets acquaintances at the bar with his usual warmth. Like any good restaurateur, he works both sides of the kitchen door. Through the course of the evening, he himself has staffed the kitchen, cooking dishes with names like Faison Filet, Broken-hearted Fettucini, and Chicken Ginger and Mary Ann. For many, these dishes are a virtual flashback to when his original restaurant, Faison’s, opened to a ravenous city in 1982 and inspired a culinary revolution in Nashville. No one, not even his most vociferous competitors, would deny that when these dishes popped up on the menu at Faison’s, the event was a milestone in the evolution of the dining industry here.

Speaking in a thoughtful tone, Jody remembers 1984 and 1985 as peak years for Faison’s, when his restaurant was the IT place and he, as his business card read, was ”King.“

”We were rocking. We did the hip thing,“ Jody recalls in an interview later. ”It was national, but we were the first in Nashville to do it. Lots of things came together at the right time, and we were right in the middle of it, riding this incredible wave. I was so young.

”I thought it was going to last forever.“

Faison’s Restaurant was the beginning of a story that is now somewhere in the middle. In the ensuing 15 years, the concept that made Faison’s a success was applied to five more decidedly individual restaurants: Jody’s, JoeD’s Hot Chicken Club, Iguana, 12th & Porter, and Cafe OneTwoThree.

In the last three years, Jody has sold Faison’s, changed the name and concept of two other restaurants, juggled personnel, fiddled with menus, and struggled mightily with all but perhaps the scrappy and seemingly indestructible 12th & Porter. The Faison restaurant empire spread on its own momentum, following the indulgent whims of its founder. But Jody himself admits that he had a difficult time saying ”no“ as his business grew out of his control, or saying ”no“ to his own demons.

Last spring, he entered a month-long program to battle years of alcohol and drug abuse. Now nine months clean, he admits to still feeling vulnerable to his weaknesses, though he says that he long ago grew bored of drinking in his own joints. He asserts that the intense self-examination required of rehab programs has led him to a clear understanding of his self-destructive behaviors.

At 40 years old, Jody Faison may have found some degree of inner peace, but he doesn’t much feel like the King anymore. He wonders if he’s lost the Midas Touch, the seemingly effortless gift he had for spinning fettucini into gold.

As Nashville finds itself in the midst of ground-breaking, tradition-shattering, faster-than-the-speed-of-light change in the dining industry, Jody is trying to slow it down, to catch his breath, to refocus. He has reorganized management in his restaurants, and many feel as if the restaurateur’s long, slow slide has halted. But competition is hotter, and the tables at Faison’s eateries don’t fill up as fast as they used to.

Beginning his 18th year in the business, he is struggling to get his groove back, to see if he has it in him any longer to give the people what they want. In his kitchens, Jody Faison has leaped from the frying pans and into the fire. Now, he’s trying to get back.

Joseph Johnson Faison III was raised in Fayetteville, a conservative, Bible Belt vise of small town Tennessee about 80 miles from Nashville. His great-grandfather opened a drugstore there at the turn of the century; his father sold it only a couple of years ago. Jody, the oldest of three boys, worked there weekends and after school when he wasn’t playing sports.

”I started playing football pre-birth,“ he says, only half-kidding. ”That was the entertainment in Fayetteville. I was always so big, people just assumed I would play. Football was a huge conflict in my life growing up. My father was obsessed with it. I hated it. I didn’t like any sports, really. I liked music. I was more interested in drinking and smoking and playing rock and roll. Football interfered with that. Dad pushed a lot, I resisted a lot.“

In his senior year, Jody gave in, cut his hair short, and accepted a football scholarship to Vanderbilt ”because Guy Clark was playing the Exit/In.“ In fact, Jody has always harbored dreams of being a songwriter, so the journey to a songwriter’s haven was natural. He loved lyrics, and was captured by poetry as an English major. ”Jody was a poet trapped in a linebacker’s body,“ quips Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and one of Jody’s closest friends. The inner poet eventually won out when Jody quit football after two years; his father didn’t speak to him for another two.

With vague plans to eventually open a music publishing company, he interned at Network Ink, a then-new music and entertainment public relations firm. When he graduated, he presented himself to founding partner Liz Thiels, who regretfully informed him that the fledgling company wasn’t hiring. He never went on another job interview in his life.

”When I didn’t get a job right out of school,“ Jody says, ”I thought, åOh my God, what am I going to do now?’ I saw an ad in the paper that said åUnique restaurant for sale. 298-2112.’ “

Jody made the call and met the asking price—$7,100 for Mother Earth Vegetarian Restaurant, everything in it, and a two-week training course to boot. His parents chipped in another $15,000—the money that they saved because he had gotten a football scholarship—and he dove in.

At the time, Faison figured opening a restaurant would be a good way to make contacts in the music industry. And he talked his girlfriend Laura Baker, now his wife of 17 years, into joining him. ”She had just graduated from Vanderbilt with an art degree, so she couldn’t get a job either,“ he laughs. ”I offered her $150 a week, my stereo, and the underlying promise of an engagement ring if she would help me out. She was the first cook; they taught her to make all that vegetarian stuff—quiches, casseroles, soups, steamed veggies. We started the training on June 15, 1981, and we took over the restaurant July 1.“

Mother Earth was located in an old house tucked away on Belcourt Avenue in the then-decidedly unhip Hillsboro Village. It had a front porch, working fireplaces, and rambling rooms—but Jody sensed it was missing a key element.

”We were doing lunch and dinner. One Saturday night, we only had one customer. So the first order of business was to try to slide in a bar,“ he confesses. ”The serious health food people started raising their eyebrows at that. I tried to walk the line, to make everybody happy. But I knew I had to do better than $300 a day. So I slipped in the beef tips.“

Recalls Young: ”I don’t even know why I went there the first time. I wasn’t a vegetarian. But here was a vegetarian restaurant with a bar in it, which was pretty unusual. And behind the bar was this big, 21-year-old guy playing great, great music. That’s what struck me first, the music. Jody exposed me—exposed everybody—to such a broad spectrum of sounds. Then, he added beef tips to the menu and pretty soon I was eating beef tips every night.“

The stereo was pumping out a wide variety of tunes, ranging from Toots and the Maytals and Ella Fitzgerald to Guy Clark and everything in between. In the fall of ’81, he changed the name to Faison’s. The music, bar, and beef tips started to attract a new crowd—Vanderbilt medical students, journalists, songwriters, and Music Row. The party had begun.

”I never really thought about a concept,“ Jody says. ”I thought it should have more atmosphere than anything else. I just wanted a bar where people could sit outside and have a drink and listen to Frank Sinatra. We floundered around for a while. I hadn’t accepted food at that point. Then I made a trip to Atlanta and checked out those Peasant restaurants. I thought, åHey, this is happening.’ Creative, gourmet food, under $10 in a great atmosphere. It was the dawn of that baby-boomer, yuppie generation.

”I was right in the middle of it. I knew that group and I knew what we wanted.“

In fact, Jody’s talent was greater: he knew what his people wanted before they even knew what it was.

In those days the restaurant scene in Nashville was limited to, as Jody describes it, ”fern bars and 4 stars.“ When it came to food, choices were limited to whether your chicken was fried or paired with dumplings. There was no ethnic cuisine, no casual pasta, no fresh fish, and no place to eat after 9 p.m.

Jody started reading every cookbook he could get his hands on, and then he started cooking. He soon added veal picatta, fettucini alfredo, and brie in phyllo. He threw fresh spinach or artichokes on anything that stood still. If two ingredients were good, five were better. Experiments rarely failed.

”We sold the shit out of blackened redfish,“ he says, ”and we weren’t even making it right.“

Chicken Jerusalem, Chicken Florentine, Faison Filet, and Broken-hearted Fettucini soon followed. The pastry chef was his mother, Lois Faison, who made the desserts back home in Fayetteville and sent them on up. She was the one who invented the spectacular Next Best Thing to Robert Redford. Faison’s offered creative food that even struggling creative types could afford. He lowered the lights, lit some votives, built fires in the fireplaces, and spread pink tablecloths. In addition to house wine by the glass, he offered decent wine by the bottle at reasonable prices.

If one of the most pivotal elements in setting the stage at Faison’s was what Jody refers to as ”foreground music,“ he routinely insisted that his bartenders also act as deejays. Ivey particularly remembers Nigel Gore at Faison’s. ”First, he was English, which imparted a certain savoir faire. He had a great ease with customers and was able to engage in lively banter. He had an appropriate disdain of people who didn’t fit, so if you did, you felt even more special. And he had very sophisticated tastes in music that were appropriate for the mood of the moment. Sometimes he reflected the existing mood, and sometimes he created it.“

Jody also presented live jazz and hung art on the walls from nascent local artists. He staffed the place with vital, attractive waitrons who all seemed on the verge of being famous for at least being infamous.

Faison’s was simply the place to be for young, creative, slightly bohemian, assertively individual, single professionals and artists. It was their social hall, their living room, the stage upon which a vibrant, exciting portion of their lives played out.

”It was a great place to go after work on Friday and any night after 10:30,“ says Ivey. ”You never knew what might happen there, but it was always interesting.“

”We practically lived there,“ Thiels recalls. ”You knew you would have a good time, you knew you’d see interesting people and that at some point in the evening, Jody would come over and say hello. I think the fact that it was in a house made it feel like a home.“

”The ambiance in the place was incredible. It was completely reflective of Jody—generous and warm and interested and open-minded,“ explains Young.

When Laura Faison, who had been working lunches, went back to school, Faison’s closed for lunch, mainly because Jody couldn’t get up the morning after the night before. He was doing all the cooking, and much of the drinking.

”About quarter to three, every drunk in Nashville came in hungry, wanting something to eat.“ Jody says. ”We’d make last call, run off the people we didn’t know, and then lock the doors. By then, I’d be ready to party. We did a whole lot of locking the doors back then.“

In 1984, a couple of high school buddies approached Jody about opening a new club. The small cinderblock building was in another undesirable location, the gritty area on 12th Avenue North known as The Gulch. It was named 12th & Porter, and began as a music club.

”It was ahead of its time, and it was a very important venue,“ says Young. ”I remember John Hiatt playing there every Tuesday night for a long time while he was working out his Bring The Family album. Joe Pass played there and Pat McLaughlin and Walk The West. Jody only booked the artists he liked.“

Unfortunately, not enough other people shared his quirky tastes, and after a couple of years of steadily losing money, Jody closed down the live music thing in October 1986. (In 1991, it returned at the adjoining property, in the 12th & Porter Playroom.)

He began the switch to a restaurant with just lunch, then added dinner in January 1987. Larry Reid, an artist, came on board as manager, and set the tone for the rebellious adolescent of the Faison restaurant family. ”Larry painted the walls black, then brought in his great art. 12th was off the beaten path, it was so edgy. I looked at it one day and I thought, åThis is going to work,’ “ Faison says.

In the kitchen at 12th, Jody created what he calls Gulch Food—Pasta YaYa, Black & Blue Pasta, Tournedos Joseph (named after his son, Joseph IV), and Rasta Pasta (named at the bar one evening by Scene editor Bruce Dobie).

The recorded music at 12th was more aggressive, more edgy than at Faison’s. The crowd was younger, sort of the next generation of Faison-ites. Among them was Clark Parsons, a 1988 Vanderbilt graduate and journalist now living in Germany.

”I hung out some in Faison’s because it made me feel like an adult,“ Parsons says. ”But 12th & Porter was louder and darker and developed a whole different energy. There was outrageous, inventive, and sometimes deliciously bad art on the walls. It was a spot where you brought newcomers to show them there was hope for Nashville.“

”It was some of the same kind of thing he did at Faison’s, but younger and more late-night,“ Thiels says. ”It was too young for me, but I liked to go there every once in a while to see what was going on with that generation. There was still a great mix of people there. Old hippies like me, Vandy, downtown business, newspaper, music, and Belle Meade ladies who came to check it all out. Somehow it all worked.“

In hindsight, Jody sees that things were beginning even then to unravel. ”I started pulling my best people out of Faison’s and putting them at 12th. I was spending 100 percent of my time at 12th and ignoring Faison’s. The bar never wavered (at Faison’s), but things started to slip there with the food. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I didn’t know how quickly the faucet could be turned off. I looked at Faison’s as an institution, a piece of art that was finished. I didn’t look at it as a living, breathing thing that needed my attention.“

But Jody had growth on his mind. In 1988, he opened JoeD’s Hot Chicken Club in the patio in back of Faison’s and built JoeD’s its own bar a year later. ”It turned into a real rockin’ little bohemian bar with its own set of regulars,“ Jody recalls.

JoeD’s attracted a lot of young rock musicians, remembers Will Kimbrough of The Bisquits. One of the band’s most requested encore songs was a satire on the Nashville rock scene called Going Back To Faison’s. ”It was sort of an insider, name-check song,“ says Kimbrough. ”It never was popular anywhere outside of Nashville. At one point in the song, all the members would mutter improvisational bar talk into their mikes, directed at [JoeD’s bartender] Romo. It was funny.“

Then, the chorus, I’m going back to Faison’s/I’m in pursuit of life/I’m going back to Faison’s/I threw up on my wife/I’m going back to Faison’s/Before my doing days are through.

In 1990, Jody bought Los Cunados, an unremarkable Mexican restaurant. But it was next door to Faison’s, it was for sale, and the money was right. Laura Faison is from Texas, so he was inclined to try the Tex-Mex thing that hadn’t happened yet in Nashville. He bought it in January, closed it that summer, remodeled, and re-opened as Iguana. Bartender Billy Carter came over from Faison’s and was crucial to its immediate success, particularly among the black leather, rock and roll, post-Gold Rush crowd.

Soon, patrons were circulating between the three-ring circus of bars on Belcourt. The ringmaster was Jody, who also made regular forays over to the Gulch to check on 12th & Porter and the Playroom.

”I felt like I was fairly able to maintain at that stage,“ he says. ”Then, in 1993, this became available. It was lust at first sight.“

The unlikely object of his desire was the crumbling, 15,000 square-foot building across the street from 12th & Porter that now houses Pub of Love, the Garage of Love, Cafe OneTwoThree and the company’s offices. His first step was to open Pub of Love in 1994 in the smallest part of the building. With a liquor license in hand, Jody was able to test the waters with Pub of Love. In July of 1994, he started building Cafe One- TwoThree. ”I felt good about it. I felt like it was the next logical step.“

When it opened in January 1995, Cafe OneTwoThree seemed the manifestation of the grown-up Jody. It was also a destination point for his fellow yuppie baby-boomers, who were now married with careers and mortgages and yuppie-puppies. It was also a chance to go for an older crowd, one that would not compete with Faison’s or 12th & Porter.

For the first time, he hired a chef: his brother Rob Faison, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Rob devised an ambitious, pricey menu. The other Faison elements were firmly in place—a great room, an inviting bar, cool music, good food. But for some reason, none of those elements ever came together. If Jody’s other restaurants had seemed a cohesive extension of their owner’s personality, Cafe OneTwoThree was showing signs of strain. After all, Jody couldn’t be in five places at once.

About the same time he was opening Cafe OneTwoThree, Faison entered a partnership with Jules Lieb, who had previously owned a vegetarian restaurant. Jody was reluctant, but Lieb persisted, and Jody loved the space at Cummins Station. Like so many other times in his life, Jody couldn’t say no. Jules opened in April 1995, and the first item on the menu was a big bowl of strife.

”I always considered Jules the problem child,“ says Parsons.

Ivey agrees. ”I never really connected with Jules. I didn’t like the room. I thought it was too big and very cold.“

When Cafe OneTwoThree debuted, there were two-hour waits for a Saturday night dinner table. But soon enough, trouble began to sprout. Rob Faison broke a foot and couldn’t meet the physical requirements of a busy kitchen. Subsequent chefs couldn’t execute Rob’s demanding menu. There was much rumor and gossip within the industry about drug and alcohol problems in the kitchen. Jody was having to spend more time at Jules and less time at his other restaurants.

Everything had come by instinct until then.

”One day I looked around and realized I was running six restaurants. I had no management skills, no accounting skills, and was running everything by the seat of my pants. Besides that, I was a foodaholic and an alcoholic. It was a mess. I didn’t know what the hell to do.“

So for a while, he did nothing but try to maintain. Then, in July 1996, during a violent thunderstorm, the roof blew off Cafe OneTwoThree, and Jody was forced to close it for three months.

”To tell you the truth, by the time the roof blew off it was a relief,“ he says.

”Nothing was feeling good to me anymore. Running all those restaurants was like wrestling a blue marlin. You have to stay right on top of it every second because it can get away from you so quickly. I was exhausted.“

While OneTwoThree was closed, Jody re-examined his situation. ”I never had any training in this business. I always learned from the people I hired. Every restaurant I had just kind of grew very organically. That wasn’t the way with OneTwoThree and Jules. With six restaurants, I was over-extended and in too deep. At that point, I decided anything I had was for sale.“

So he sold the hub of his creaky wheel: Faison’s.

”I remember signing a 15-year lease and thinking in 15 years I’d be dead or living in the Bahamas,“ he says. In 1997, almost 16 years to the month after buying Mother Earth, Jody sold Faison’s to Greg Shockro and Herb Allen. The two twentysomethings had spent plenty of time at Faison’s as undergrads at Vanderbilt. After an extensive makeover, The Trace opened in the fall of 1997 and, like Faison’s had before, it sizzled.

Selling Faison’s wasn’t the cure. With the exception of 12th & Porter, nothing was going well. Jody continued tinkering with the menu at Cafe OneTwoThree. He closed Iguana and re-opened it as JoeD’s Hot Chicken Club. The concept laid an egg. He took complete control of Jule’s, renamed it Jody’s, and made several menu changes—one an astoundingly awful ’50s flashback. In the competitive, catty restaurant industry, everyone was whispering, ”What the hell is going on with Jody?“

Jody, who claims to have opened a bar because he never wanted to hear the words ”last call,“ was turning to alcohol. ”I started drinking when I was 11,“ he says. ”As big as I am I could drink a lot. I was a functioning alcoholic, but as time went on, it was getting worse and worse. I was spending 2 or 3 days at a time away from home.“

As his alcohol consumption increased, he also turned to drugs, which is what he claims saved his life. ”I didn’t think I was an alcoholic and that’s not why I went to rehab. I thought I had a drug problem. Basically, I have a compulsive, addictive personality, whether it’s alcohol or drugs or food or computers. But I would never have gone to rehab if I hadn’t wanted to stop taking drugs.“

A five-day binge over Thanksgiving 1997 was the moment, that darkest moment where addicts either go under for good or turn toward the sun. Says Kyle Young, ”It was clear that something had to be done. As his friend, I was frightened for him.“

He stayed clean for a few months on his own while Laura investigated rehab centers. In March 1998, he entered a residential program in Alabama. ”I loved rehab. It was like being in 7th grade again. No one knew me. It was a great experience.“

When Jody came back to Nashville in April, one of the first things he did was hire a director of operations, George Pinger. Pinger is a longtime veteran of the restaurant, hotel, and food and beverage industries, and specialized in taking over distressed operations.

What Pinger found was a mess—no cost controls, no budgets, no procedures and policies, and no cohesive plan within the restaurant group. ”Jody Faison is one of the most creative people I know,“ says Pinger. ”That’s a gimme. But he’s such a nice guy and in business, you can’ t always be a nice guy. Somebody has to play hardball and that’s me.“

Since taking over, Pinger has implemented budgets, fired more than 30 people, installed managers that complement each property, and scheduled weekly staff meetings for each restaurant.

”I think we make a good team,“ Pinger says. ”There’s a mutual respect; we know each others’ strengths and limitations. I think right now the pieces are in place to get back on track. I think we’ve gotten to second base and [are] on our way to third. I don’t think he’ll ever come back to being The Guy—it’s a different world out there. But he’s got a commitment to win. I’m seeing the eye of the tiger.“

A restaurant doesn’t have time to ”grow organically“ any longer, to develop a personality. New restaurants come with business plans, decorating schemes, pre-fab concepts, and built-in themes. They are hot only until their patrons are beckoned somewhere hotter.

Jody Faison has fashioned a career as a restaurateur with the nature of an artist. That has been his greatest strength and perhaps his greatest weakness. His restaurants were infused with a distinct vision of a community sitting down to a meal. It was an open, daring, enveloping home, even if momma’s kitchen never smelled that weird. Jody’s vision created an environment where his staff and his customers were encouraged to contribute a bit of their own. To be a customer of Jody’s, particularly in the early days, was to have a relationship with Jody—no matter how well or casually you knew him. His restaurants offered far more than just something to eat; they offered a piece of his heart.

”I really miss Faison’s,“ says Thiels wistfully. ”I think a lot of people do. It was a time as much as a place. But you can’t go back.“

Neither can Jody. If he is to succeed again, he must find the confidence to look within himself, see what still lurks in his soul, set it free, and move ahead.

”I’ve always had an innate sense of a good place to drink and a good place to eat,“ says Jody. ”I think that’s my little gift. Early on my father told me that restaurants were a personality business. I’ve never had any luck selling anything but my personality. I need to give my places and my food a style, a personality. That’s been my thing for 18 years. I’m attracted to creative people and I think they’ve been attracted to me. I hope we are still attracted to each other. I think so. I’ve always been an optimistic person.“

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