Al Thomas began in restaurants at the ‘bottom of the bottom’ — “I was so low on the food chain I had to work up to becoming a dishwasher.”
As a boy, he couldn’t wait to launch himself into restaurants. He got his feet wet at age 13 working in a seafood store and mini market. “I loved it! I sold fish over the counter all summer.”
At age 14, the budding entrepreneur was doing cleanup work at 48-year-old Sperry’s, in Belle Meade, Tenn. And now he owns that restaurant with his wife and partner Trish, along with another Sperry’s concept, six Sam’s Sports Grilles and two Sam’s Places. It’s a veritable empire.
And along the way, Thomas worked in Nashville as a headwaiter serving music stars and teaching a college baking class on how to bone chicken and make sauces.
“I’ve been in this business for 48 years. It’s like an affliction,” Thomas says. “Every time I take my wife out to eat, even at somebody else’s restaurant, I can’t help it, but I see and smell everything. If I notice a table where diners had to wait too long to be greeted, my wife hates it, but I talk her ear off about it.”
In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, Thomas discusses his long odyssey —one in which Boxerbrand been along for the ride.
Boxerbrand: What’s new after 48 years in restaurants?
Al Thomas: With the Coronavirus, and the growth of mail-order, I said, alright, we have a great product. Our motto is we serve what we sell. We were getting ready to launch a new concept when Covid hit and threw a monkey wrench into everything.
So we waited and then by chance a 6,000 square foot warehouse space, which was perfect for our idea, opened up. It was perfect. There’s road frontage, it’s next to my house, and we’re in the process of building out Sperry’s Meats. The front of the building will be our meat market, which we’re calling Sperry’s Mercantile. We’re also going to build in a coffee concept— we’re in negotiations with a very cool coffee company—and the back of the property will be our fulfillment center servicing our website sperrysmeats.com.
Boxerbrand: How are you staffing your concept?
Al Thomas: While we were riding out Covid measures, I put an ad up on Indeed and I landed a great guy, deeply experienced in mail order. So I brought him on to run our mail-order division. And daughter Kate is working with him to build out a big website. We have a little, teeny family operation that does really well!
Boxerbrand: How well did you do last year?
Al Thomas: We’re up 36 percent in revenue!! Our Sperry’s meat sales from our open meat market at Sperry’s Restaurant in Belle Meade. Between sales there, and business at the restaurant itself, we did $6 million last year.
During Covid, we entered a time when people started eating at home. And we were very lucky because we already had a successful meat business for home chefs to prepare in their own kitchens.
Boxerbrand: How do you account for the uptick in profits?
Al Thomas: I always say it’s because we run a good operation. In our sports bars, for example, we make everything from scratch, from our chicken stocks, to grinding our own meat. And everything is fresh. We throw out vegetables at the end of the day to ensure freshness of what we serve. And we strive for consistency in our execution. When you come to our restaurant, or order takeout, our customers know what to expect. On top of our business practices, we’ve had a huge population influx to Tennessee, and that has helped us too.
Boxerbrand: How do you succeed when so many fail?
Al Thomas: I like to say that I bleed au jus. From the minute I got into hospitality, it’s all I wanted to do. I jumped into positions along the way, and seized opportunity where I could. In my early years, I learned about an opportunity at a great restaurant, and I showed up unannounced, early, and walked away with the job. I met my wife at a restaurant. And by the time I applied to colleges, I knew that this was the work I wanted to do.
Boxerbrand: And the menu covers have worked out for you?
Al Thomas: I’ve been buying Boxerbrand menus since 1992, after I saw a little advertisement in Nation’s Restaurant News. And I’ve been buying a wide range of product from Boxerbrand ever since.
Boxerbrand: How do you stay optimistic?
Al Thomas: Bottom line: my optimism for the restaurant business continues to grow as long as the economy grows in such a way that people can still afford to go out to eat. — Sperry’s restaurants use Boxerbrand’s Classic menu cover line in their table presentation. Thank you!