How old wood, rusted tin and walls covered in dollar bills tell the story of Chattanooga-based Champy’s restaurants

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ A giant metal rooster stands outside the entrance to Champys in East Ridge.

Walking into a Champy's restaurant is sort of like stepping into a kaleidoscope. Whatever direction you turn, bright colors flash before your eyes.

Vinyl tablecloths pop with tropical prints. A Miller Lite sign adds a neon blue glow. Strand upon strand of Christmas lights illuminate the open ceiling.

It's not just a blitz of bright colors. Literally everywhere you look are things to look at, tens of thousands of pieces in artful disarray, a hidden-pictures book come to life.

Even the owners say they spot something new every day — and they helped decorate the place.

"That's the first time I've noticed that," says Seth Champion on a recent walk-through at the East Ridge location, one of nine Champy's restaurants that he and his wife, Crissy, own in Tennessee and Alabama.

He's in the foyer, surveying an overhead shelf lined with a ceramic pig, three small gnomes, a plastic horse head and a Boston terrier figurine. Nearby are an American flag hanging from a rafter, various Christmas blow molds and a carved wood duck painted gray with a blue bill. Oh, and there's a dollar bill taped to its back.

Those dollar bills are a thing at Champy's. They're everywhere — filling any empty space on the walls and often covering artwork and other memorabilia.

Crissy says this customer ritual began at their original location, on M.L. King Boulevard in downtown Chattanooga, right after they opened in 2009.

"That started with a fraternity that came in after one of their date parties," she says. "About 50 of them signed dollar bills and put them on the wall. It grew from there."

Since then, Seth says, it has become a tradition that the first bills to go up at each new restaurant are from the servers' tips.

"The first dollar each server makes, they're supposed to sign and post it on the wall for good luck," he says.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Crissy and Seth Champion stand inside the East Ridge location of Champy's World-Famous Fried Chicken. They own eight other restaurants, and more are in the works.

The Champions are Mississippi natives, and they've designed each restaurant to evoke the atmosphere of a Delta juke joint. At East Ridge, they've added a Mississippi birthright hall of fame: two corner walls lined with professionally drawn portraits of Mississippi natives, from Britney Spears to Oprah Winfrey to Jim Henson, plus an array of Mississippi blues musicians. Nearby, an early-years Elvis image fills a window behind the bar's small stage. The party room has a wall-to-wall mural of B.B King as a backdrop. A commissioned painting of R.L. Burnside presides over the entryway.

For every bit of kitsch in the restaurants — a fabricated rooster in a brass bird cage, mass-produced clown paintings from the 1960s — there are classical counterparts. The jewel-toned pendant lamps that brighten the bar are all elegantly designed Hollywood Regency-style pieces.

"They're all vintage," Seth says. "None are reproductions, but the real ones are getting harder to find."

Despite the glitz and grandeur that define each restaurant's interior space, there's little razzle-dazzle outside. It's all mismatched wood and rusted tin, except for the light-up signs advertising Champy's World-Famous Fried Chicken. East Ridge is one of two locations that have the rust-crusted bones of an old tractor on the roof. Improbably, it appears there's a second story atop this sprawling shack.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Seth Champion talks about the Mississippi wall of fame at Champy’s in East Ridge.

Chattanooga artist Terry Cannon, whose works are a similar assemblage of found objects and paint, has taken the lead on designing and decorating the restaurants since 2016, working on the Lee Highway, East Ridge and Cleveland locations.

Lately, he's been sourcing the signature wood, tin and decor for the next restaurant in Smyrna, Tennessee. That process is another tradition at the restaurants. The original design started with a road trip that took Crissy and Seth from Tennessee to Mississippi, reclaiming old wood and tin from bygone buildings, along with vintage decor from antique malls and thrift stores.

Cannon says he and the Champions were of like minds for the vibe that is Champy's, so their collaborations have been easy.

"My approach is 'more is more,'" Cannon says. "I like to cover every piece of wall. When someone comes in for the 20th time, I want them to still be seeing something they haven't seen before."

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Dollar bills festoon the walls at Champy’s in East Ridge.