By Sadie Fowler
When west Tennessee native Wade Hays moved to Murfreesboro more than 30 years ago to work in the restaurant business he had absolutely no idea he’d end up where he is today — the owner of one of the area’s most popular restaurants in an area that’s boomed beyond his imagination.
Hays is the owner of Toot’s, which now has several locations with another on the horizon, and prides himself in service — service to his customers and his community. Even though he’s a “transplant,” Hays chose to make his life in Murfreesboro, and he’s glad he did.
“I had no idea this area would experience this type of growth back then,” he laughed. “I’m the luckiest guy ever. I was in the right place, at the right time for sure.”
Hays was recruited by Jim Demos back in the 1980s, becoming owner of Toot’s, which now has three locations, in 2005. It’s remained a family affair with his wife Keitha and son Nick working by his side each day to maintain Toot’s reputation for being the area’s best family restaurant of its kind. In addition to family, Hays is quick to give credit to Bill McCrary for serving along his side for 30 years as his director of operations.
This mentality — family and service — are at the core of Hays’ belief in giving back to his community. He’s served on the boards of various organizations over the years, but is currently most passionate about his role with the Rutherford County Boys & Girls Club. He was introduced to the club after the restaurant provided food for its staple annual event, the Steak and Burger Dinner.
“If God has blessed you I believe it is your responsibility to give back to others,” he said. “I believe we have an obligation to use the gifts we are given.”
Hays said he quickly realized the Boys & Girls Club is “a home-run organization that’s so much more than just a baby sitter.” Rather, he said, it’s a safe place where children of need in the community receive supervised tutoring, activities and a hot meal each night.
“The goal is then for the parents of these children — often a single, working mom for example — to be able to pick their child up and go home and spend quality time with them, not having to worry about the things like dinner and homework.”
While Hays jokes about being lucky, he’s certainly put in years of hard work. He credits Jim Demos with teaching him a strong work ethic early on. Even though he admits being nervous early in his career at choosing to embark in the restaurant business, where long and strange hours are the norm, he knew he loved the business.
“It’s all I’ve ever known,” he said. “I really don’t ever feel the need to ‘tune out’ because I don’t want to. I mean sure, when I’m at a movie or something I’ll turn my phone off, but in general, I love what I do and want to be available.”
His passion and work ethic, combined with the location of the original Toot’s on Broad Street, helped pave his path to success. The town has literally grown around the original Toot’s, and as Murfreesboro grew, so did the business. Toot’s of Smyrna came next (2003) with Toot’s South on Church Street following in 2010. Now, plans are underway to launch a fourth location in the Blackman community in the summer of 2018.
Hays’ number one goal has been growth without losing the local flare, flavor or identity of the Toot’s brand.
“Toot’s is much more than Wade Hays,” he said. “Toot’s has been supported by this community for 32 years in a big way, which is just one more reason to hang around and grow with the city.”
Just like any item that appears on the menu, Hays said a great deal of research was done as to planning the perfect location of the next Toot’s. Partnered with John Floyd, Hays said they looked at several areas including other counties, but west Murfreesboro kept coming back to the top of the list.
“We knew we wanted to grow and when we did we were poised and ready,” he said. “We all knew that area was already strong and going to work for Toot’s.”
Hays believes in being open to change without losing sight of a business model that’s worked for decades. He’s constantly looking to improve with one of his favorite sayings being, “If it ain’t broke you’re not looking hard enough,” he laughed. “We always want to improve, and the restaurant business is one that’s tough. We’re not afraid to experiment but we don’t shoot from the hip either.”
Toot’s, which entered the scene before the wave of chain restaurants, attracts diners of all ages. He said many people are often surprised that most of his customers are families. People assume it’s the college crowd who comes in waves, but he said the best value, to him, of having MTSU in his backyard are the employee-base it provides Toot’s.
Even though he’s been in the restaurant business his whole life, Hays said he learns something new about Toot’s or its menu often. For example, Toot’s might be well-known for its chicken wings but someone recently stopped him at Kroger and said, “Toot’s has the best salsa I’ve ever had!” Hays loves hearing things like that.
“I love it when someone comes up to me and says, ‘I’ve been eating at Toot’s for years and I had no idea you were a barbecue joint. Those are the best ribs around!’ If a customer says their experience at Toot’s was good or great that is not the best compliment to me, because that’s what they should say. My favorite compliment is when customers use words like ‘amazing’ or ‘love’ because that’s when I know word of mouth is going to advertise for us. That’s what we’re looking for.”
Hays started out as a bartender, then became a server. He’s worked in just about every role the restaurant business offers. He could get behind the line and cook if he had to, although he joked he’d probably slow the process down too much. The only role he can’t perform is that of the cashier, a key job that’s much harder than most people realize.
“They handle take outs, handle money and juggle all sorts of things,” he said. “Trust me, that’s a very hard job and I couldn’t do it.”
Toot’s doesn’t use electronic printers. Rather, they use old-fashioned paper tickets — they often have to train new employees on how to “not” use the typical computer system for putting in orders. Servers have to learn restaurant short hand and how to wait tables the old-fashioned way. The customer is always right and being overstaffed is key to success.
“Not being overstaffed is the biggest mistake people who fail in this business make,” he said. “That, and not having a visible manager on the floor... We demand it here. Customers need to see that a manager is present. Not that the manager needs to greet every table or customers have to be ‘over-served,’ but the manager absolutely must be visible on the floor in order for the restaurant to succeed.”
Quality employees make his business tick, he said, as does a system that thrives on discipline — everything they do has a reason. He’s not able to have as much interaction with employees as he once did due to the restaurant’sgrowth, but he still values putting capable managers in place of training employees the right way.
“I hear I’m intimidating sometimes, but I don’t want to be,” he said. “I’m just busy. I used to know everyone’s name who worked here and I wish I still did, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized if we want to be successful I have to be focused on the bigger picture. I have to train others and then be able to step back.”
Hays visits each location almost daily, with Toot’s now employing more than 280 people and serving more than a million meals each year. It’s become a massive operation that requires hard work and dedication to a business that thrives on late nights, working on weekends and holidays, and customer service.
Mistakes happen, of course, and he’s seen his share of disasters in the kitchen or on the floor over the years.
“The most important thing when bad things happen is to be honest, own up to your mistake and apologize,” he said. “That’s a big mistake people make — not sincerely apologizing. Then, you do whatever you can to fix it.”
He runs his business with a firm hand but at the end of the day he’s just a normal guy who loves his job, his family and his community. When the day’s over, he wants to man the grill at home (he says he leaves the cooking up to his wife) or simply go out for a good bite to eat.
His favorite choice is often a plain old classic burger at Toot’s.