VOL. 123 | NO. 90 | Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Huey's CEO a Memphis Legacy
By Bill Dries
Thomas Boggs learned the restaurant trade waiting tables at the TGI Friday's in Overton Square. He learned the value of hard work as a teenager playing drums in a wildly popular early 1960s party band in Memphis. The mix helped create a Midtown institution and a family business run by his daughters.
Boggs, the CEO of Huey's restaurants and partner in several other established members of the city's restaurant industry, died Monday at his home after a two-year battle with cancer.
His death came the day before the Memphis City Council was scheduled to vote on an honorary street name change for the section of Madison Avenue in Midtown that runs by the original Huey's.
"I am very fortunate. I love coming to work. Unless I'm out of town, I come to my office every day, seven days a week," Boggs said in a 2002 interview with The Daily News. "Working with my girls is something most fathers don't get to do. That really makes it fun."
A family guy
Huey's opened in 1970 on Madison between what was becoming Overton Square and Anderton's, a seafood restaurant famous for its pirate décor and its old-style cooking and service. Boggs went to work at Huey's five years later as a bartender and manager.
He later became a 50-50 partner with co-owner Jay Sheffield. Boggs was the partner who suggested the bar should try opening for lunch. At the time, Huey's and other bars in Memphis weren't known for the food they served. It was a requirement of their beer permits. But it was a minimal requirement with minimal results.
The lunch opening launched the restaurant's famous hamburger, drew families and was a factor in the decision to open six other Huey's locations in the Memphis area.
The transition to new customers came off without losing many of the older customers. But Boggs, at first, didn't care for the habit some patrons had of blowing toothpick frills from the Huey burgers into the restaurant's ceiling. It quickly became a Huey's tradition and Boggs turned it into a fundraiser for the Memphis Zoological Society, which he headed in the 1980s. Customers could pay a donation to the zoo to guess how many frills are stuck in the ceiling and win a free tab if their guess was closest to the number of frills.
Boggs was a teenager when he joined Tommy Burk & The Counts, an early '60s band that played innumerable sock hops, fraternity parties and other gatherings in the Memphis area. He said later that the ability to make money and work hard playing the drums and showing up on time for gigs was an early lesson in business. He also worked at a neighborhood drug store and credited the owner with teaching him the work ethic that made him a success in the risky and volatile restaurant industry.
As musical tastes shifted, Boggs became manager of the Memphis band The Box Tops, who had the country's No. 1 hit in 1967, according to music industry trade magazine "Cashbox," with "The Letter," a song cut at the old American Studios at Chelsea Avenue and Danny Thomas Boulevard.
Boggs joined the band itself in 1968 as drummer and stayed for a year or two until he took a job at the then-newly opened TGI Friday's in Overton Square. It was the city's first singles bar. Its opening and plans for development of the rest of the entertainment district were announced the day after Memphis voters approved liquor by the drink in a referendum. The owners of the Friday's worked out a franchise agreement with the original Friday's in New York City and in a classic Memphis entrepreneurial twist built a bar and grill that looked nothing like the original but had its name and its New York City cachet.
The next generation of restaurant and bar owners, including Boggs, served an informal apprenticeship at Friday's. He went to work for the Friday's chain out of its Dallas office helping to set up new franchises using the guidelines established at the Memphis operation.
With his experience and Huey's ownership in transition, Boggs became a partner in Huey's two years after his return to Memphis.
He was also a partner in the Half Shell restaurants, The Prime Cut Shoppe, Tsunami and Folks Folly. Boggs was asked for business advice so often that he kept copies of a list of questions he wanted the prospective owners to consider carefully. One of the questions asked whether the person could stand to lose all of their investment in the restaurant they wanted to open.
Boggs stayed involved in a long list of civic projects in addition to his work for the zoo at a critical time in its development. He was among those helping round up private donors for the transition of the Overton Park Shell into the Levitt Pavillion in Overton Park.
The old shell will remain but with the old benches removed for a picnic area on the grass and a series of free concerts planned. Boggs was a past president of the Memphis in May International Festival and the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.
He also was a past president of the Memphis Restaurant Association and was awarded the association's highest honor, the Newt Hardin Award for outstanding service.