Restaurant Scene: After 31 years in prison, Bryan Slayton’s road to redemption is on M.L. King Boulevard

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Bryan Slayton holds a steak wrap at Bad Wraps on Friday.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Bryan Slayton holds a steak wrap at Bad Wraps on Friday.

All together, Bryan Slayton spent 31 years incarcerated in a handful of federal prisons across the United States. During his first stint from 1989-1997, Slayton felt the wrath of the war on drugs.

Some of the policies seem lopsided today. For example: A person had to serve a minimum of five years if they were charged with distributing more than 5 grams of crack cocaine, but it took 500 grams of cocaine to receive that same five-year sentence, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Crack cocaine was synonymous with a downtrodden, primarily Black demographic as opposed to cocaine, which was more expensive and used by a clientele of a higher social status. By the time Slayton was convicted of a possession charge, the ACLU found that African Americans were subjected to a 49% higher federal drug sentence compared to their white counterparts.

Bad Wraps

— What: Traditional wraps, but fried like a chimichanga.

— Where: 426 East M.L. King Blvd.

— Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and every other Saturday.

— How much: Price ranges range from $10 for a steak wrap to $8 for a chicken wrap. Fries are $6.

Slayton, who was born and raised in the Ridgeway Apartments on the Westside of Chattanooga, recalls his first encounter with crack cocaine in the mid-'80s.

"We didn't initially know what crack was," he said. "This wasn't New York City, Los Angeles. Back then, the only time we saw slick stuff like that was on the television show 'Miami Vice.' But somehow crack came to Chattanooga, and it changed everybody's life."

After Slayton was released in 1997, it was only a matter of months before he was jammed up again in a drug-related incident. He went on the run for three years before finally getting caught in Memphis while attending the annual Southern Heritage Classic football game. He was indicted on 17 counts of conspiracy to distribute powder cocaine and crack cocaine, possession with intent to distribute powder cocaine and crack cocaine and related charges. In March 2000, Slayton was sentenced to 389 months, which comes out to 32 years.

For the majority, it may seem foolish and futile to get into the "dope game," but for others growing up straddling the poverty line, it seemed like a lucrative venture.

"We found an avenue to get us some money. Before that we were broke," Slayton said. "We'd sell aluminum cans and glass bottles, get a newspaper route or cut grass. We started getting money, and the tennis shoes you always wanted, you got! That extra meal or haircut you wanted, you got that! Helping your mama pay the bills, you got that!"

Slayton was released eight years early on June 1, 2020, and will be on federal probation for four more years because of the bipartisan First Step Act signed in 2018 by former President Donald Trump. As a part of his probation, he was ordered to stay in a halfway house on McCallie Avenue.

After working at TNT Cleaning and trying to get his own cleaning business off the ground to no avail, Slayton reverted to something he learned in prison.

"Food in prison wasn't too good, so we'd go to the commissary and make our stuff," he said. "We used an iron, a garbage can and grease from the kitchen. It was real crude, but we had to do what we had to do in there."

After he made wraps for his children and family members, a friend asked Slayton to make 50 wraps for a wedding reception. The positive response prompted him to start making and selling a few hundred wraps on Saturdays. Before long, demand grew and Saturday turned into Saturday and Sunday, which ballooned into Friday, Saturday and Sunday. After he saved up enough money for a food trailer, his hustle and food caught the attention of the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga.

"The Urban League hook really helped me out," Slayton said. "A lot of the stuff I thought I knew about business, I really didn't know. I knew the hand-to-hand business like we did in the streets. I didn't know about the ins and outs of the food industry, like how to order food, do taxes and stuff like that. They taught me."

Mike Robinson, the savvy food and beverage veteran, eventually reached out to Slayton and gave him the opportunity to take over a vacancy at his Proof Incubator, which has described itself as a "resource center providing educational programs, mentorship and resources to help food and beverage entrepreneurs grow their businesses."

Slayton has been thriving at Bad Wraps on M.L. King Boulevard ever since.

If we want to get really technical, at its essence Slayton's wraps can really be classified as chimichanga, the deep-fried burrito thought to have been invented at either El Charro in Tucson, Arizona, or Macayo's Mexican Kitchen in Phoenix, Arizona. (In 2021, Macayo's set a Guinness World Record for the longest chimichanga at 25 feet, 7 inches long and weighing 537 pounds.)

Slayton gives the option of having your wrap filled with chicken, steak, ground beef or shrimp before it's combined with a medley of peppers and cheese sauce until it's bursting at the seams. The fries are la carte, piping hot and never limp. I strongly suggest the Parmesan flavor. In a serendipitous way, the deep-fried wraps are helping Slayton right his wrongs. M.L. King Boulevard might just be his literal road to redemption, which includes making sure the next generation doesn't fall into the same traps he did as much as it does filling our bellies.

Contact Andre James at ajames@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Sign up for his weekly newsletter, "What to Eat Next," at timesfreepress.com/newsletters.

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