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VOL. 125 | NO. 85 | Monday, May 3, 2010

Swankys Expands On Successful Formula

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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Swanky’s owner, Matt Wilson, at the new Swanky’s location at 4770 Poplar Ave. in East Memphis.  Photo: Bob Bayne

“We don’t think of Swankys as Mexican,” said Matt Wilson, “and not even Tex-Mex. Around the store we call it Tenn-Mex.”

That’s an appropriate, if wholly original, term for the restaurant that Wilson opened in Germantown in July 2005. As swanky as its name, the establishment facing Poplar Avenue in the Carrefour shopping center seemed less Mexican than a hipster’s rendition of a Southwestern diner with a retro gleam.

A second local Swankys opened late last month, after considerable delay, at 4770 Poplar in East Memphis, in the site formerly occupied by The Atlanta Bread Co. There’s another Swankys in Franklin outside Nashville.

Wilson, 36, was born and raised in Memphis. He attended Memphis University School and then went to the University of Denver to play golf, a sport to which he is still devoted as a hobby and avocation. He graduated with a degree in marketing and returned to Memphis, working in stocks and private equity ventures, but with the idea of what he describes as “fresh Mexican” in the back of his mind.

“I was introduced to that kind of food out west,” he said. “I fell in love with the idea of a fresh flavor palate. Fresh ingredients, fresh produce. When I came back to Memphis, there was nothing like that here.”

The Swankys menu is simple yet ingenious. The “Build to Taste” segment proceeds through four steps: The Form, The Foundation, The Sauce, The Details, and there you are, on your way to creating a salad, a burrito, a trio of tacos or the “low carb” Bowl. The other half of the menu offers items from the grill, such as fish tacos, steak fajitas, a grilled quesadilla and “Spicy Tequila Shrimp.”

“Yes, we wanted a comfortable eclectic design,” Wilson said. “And we never wanted to be fast food. Never wanted to be ‘chainy.’ Somewhere between that and fast food, call it fast-casual.”

When the Swankys in Germantown first opened, it turned into a club with music and dancing on the weekends after 10 p.m., an activity that confused the aims of the restaurant.

“That was the result of a bar manager that I met a month before we opened,” said Wilson. “We did that for a few months, but it was not a scene I was looking for or wanted, and we stopped doing it. He’s long gone. We do have live music, Memphis-based music, on Friday nights in Germantown, and we’ll do that at the East Memphis location.”

A change in the original Swankys format at the new restaurant is table service after 4 p.m., a situation that also occurs at the Swankys in Franklin.

“We felt the demographic in Nashville wanted table service, and we tried that and it worked,” he said. “So we’re doing that in East Memphis, and it has gotten a great response.”

Table service, of course, requires a different sort of training for the restaurant’s staff.

“Absolutely,” said Wilson. “It definitely requires additional training and management. Fortunately, we have the Franklin staff to draw on for their experience. It’s been a real learning curve here, so we had a soft opening (recently), no advertising. We also added made-to-order items to the menu, like red snapper and steak ranchero.”

Architect for the new store was Corey Alger, from Oxford, Miss., and the designer was Tate Conrad, a Memphian living in San Francisco. Wilson prefers working as much as possible with local people and people he knows.

“It’s easier and more fun to do business with people I know and trust, and if I have to fly them into town eight times to get the job done, that’s OK,” he said.

Among those people are Swankys operations director Dustin Jones, a graduate of St. Benedict and the University of Memphis and a veteran of the local restaurant scene; Germantown operating partner Ryan Frost from Ridgeway High School and the University of Memphis; and Franklin operating partner Clay Maddox, who has known Wilson since the fourth grade.

Wilson includes among the essential figures his wife, Michelle, Swankys community outreach coordinator.

“She’s an integral part of the business behind the scenes,” Matt Wilson said.

For six months, people driving along Poplar saw the boarded-up windows in the new Swankys and probably wondered what was taking so long for the restaurant to open.

“We didn’t anticipate the delays,” Wilson said. “Originally we were just going to retrofit the old space, and that’s how we did the design process. But we found water damage and mold, and I thought that we didn’t want to come back in three years and do it again, so I said just rip it all out.”

With the third Swankys open, Wilson said that he’ll take a few weeks “to catch my breath, and then I imagine we’ll look at more spots. We’ve expanded our catering operations. We’re not franchising, but we’ll possibly look at that in the future. “Collierville is on our radar, but not immediately, we need some time to think about that. We’ve looked at Midtown, I love the area, but parking can be an issue. Downtown is a possibility, we’ll look at that, with the new (U of M) law school and the Bass Pro deal, but we’re not in a hurry.”

PROPERTY SALES 76 133 1,342
MORTGAGES 83 131 1,047
BUILDING PERMITS 190 277 3,028