Matt Lewis brings new restaurant concepts to historic downtown structures

Matt Lewis sits inside the Honest Pint on Patten Parkway.
Matt Lewis sits inside the Honest Pint on Patten Parkway.

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• Name of owner: Matt Lewis• Restaurants owned or operated: Hair of the Dog opened in November 2005 at 334 Market Street in the site of the former Bad Ass Coffee; The Terminal Brewhouse opened in January 2009 at 1464 Market Street next to the Chattanooga Choo Choo; The Honest Pint opened in September 2010 on Patten Parkway in the former Parkway Billiards; Mean Mug Coffeehouse opened in December 2011 at 114 Main Street on the Southside, and Beast and Barrel opened in March 2014 at 16 Frazier Avenue in the former Northshore Grille location.• When and how did you get started in the restaurant business: Lewis initially managed a Bombay Co. store when he was only 19 years old and after several years decided to move into the restaurant industry at the Chattanooga Billiards Club and later Taco Mac and the Tortilla Factory before deciding in 2005 to start his own English pub, Hair of the Dog, in 2005.• Keys to success: Consistency: “To be a successful restaurant pub, I have to know that when I order a beer or a meal on Monday it is going to be the same as what I might have had Friday,” Lewis says. “You don’t want to get stale and our need to make changes, but consistently meeting expectations is critical.Hospitality: “We try to develop a culture to make all of our customers happy, welcomed and valued,” Lewis says.Value: “We build menus that are priced so that we can draw regular crowds, not just special-occasion visitors,” Lewis says. “We don’t want to necessarily be cheap, but we want people to feel when they leave our restaurants, they have received a good value for what they paid.”Future plans: After opening five restaurants from 2005 to 2014, Lewis says he is taking a pause on new projects. “Every new concept I have at this point is probably break even, at best,” he says. “We have tossed around maybe replicating one of our concepts somewhere else, but nothing is now on the horizon.”

As the son of a Krystal Co. manager, Matt Lewis moved frequently as a child while his father managed restaurants across the South.

"I swore as a kid I would never go into restaurant work because I remember all of the long hours worked by my father managing different restaurants," Lewis recalls.

But after studying history and philosophy in college while working in both retail and restaurant jobs, Lewis ultimately followed his father's career into restaurant management. He gave up his early dreams of being a curator for the Smithsonian Museum when he was trying to work two restaurant jobs, go to school and raise his children.

His historical interest has helped him develop a handful of unique restaurant concepts in historic buildings across downtown Chattanooga. He has become one of the biggest developers of restaurants and pubs in downtown Chattanooga over the past 12 years.

"We never set out to own a whole bunch of restaurants, but we've had some good concepts that have worked in Chattanooga" Lewis says.

His early jobs working in other restaurants and managing retail stores in the mall and Taco Mac downtown convinced him of the value of starting his own restaurant - and how he should manage it.

When the former Bad Ass Coffee shop at Market and Fourth streets became available in the summer of 2005, Lewis left his job at Taco Mac and joined with his partners Geoff Tarr and Bert Ingram to transform the downtown coffee shop into a two-story English pub known as the Hair of the Dog. It was an immediate hit.

A couple of years later, Lewis and his partners saw another opportunity to open a brew pub in an historic triangular-shaped building near the Chattanooga Choo Choo. When Joe Sliger acquired the Terminal Building at 1464 Market Street, Lewis and his group convinced Sliger to convert the three-story former hotel into a restaurant and brew pub, which opened in January 2009.

The next year, Lewis and his partners opened an Irish pub known as the Honest Pint in the former Parkway Billiards location, and in 2011 Lewis added Mean Mug Coffee in the Main Street building he bought and now lives in above the coffee shop. In 2014, Lewis and his partners took over the former Northshore Grille and opened Beast and Barrel.

"We try to offer menu selections that are different and unique for the market and each of our restaurants have gone into historical and interesting buildings that give each a unique style and appeal," he said.

In all, the five restaurants Lewis has opened since 2005 seat more than 700 people combined and employ about 140 full- and part-time workers.

Operating a handful of eateries is a challenge that requires strong concepts, effective managers and workable processes at each location. But there are also economies of scale for payroll, maintenance and talent sharing, when required. For instance, the Terminal brews a red ale for the Honest Pint. Also, the gains at some restaurants can make up for downturns and losses at others.

Many restauteurs don't succeed, Lewis said, because those going into the business underestimate its challenges.

"I think a lot of people underestimate how hard it is going to be, what the work load is and how difficult it sometimes can be to manage other people." he says. "Realistically, there is a lot more hands on management than a lot of people envision."

Lewis said his concepts have lasted because they are not based upon fickle trends.

"I love the old-world, timeless feel of what we've done with our restaurants," he says. "I want restaurants that feel like they have always been open and will always stay open.

Lewis said downtown Chattanooga has benefited by local restaurateurs bringing locally originated concepts to the market.

"Fortunately, there are a lot of people who like supporting local restaurants and we have some excellent local restaurateurs in Chattanooga who have helped to diversify and elevate what is offered here," Lewis says. "I don't think we're competing against the chain restaurants, but this is still a very competitive market and that has to motivate us to make sure we never take anything for granted and we're always working to make sure that we continue to value our guests and their experience."

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