It was still dark outside when “Jim Bob” Gilpatrick, one of Lizard’s Thicket’s two do-it-all handymen, climbed a ladder to replace a parking lot lamp bulb. I sat in my car on the rainy morning last month nursing a tall Starbucks Doubleshot can.
“Rise and shine,” is how Mickey Jarvis, the general manager at the St. Andrews Road location, perkily greeted me when I walked through the door for my first shift at Lizard’s Thicket.
She gave me a hat and asked my T-shirt size. Since there would be photos of the experience and since I’ve been working on my arms...
“We don’t have a small,” she said, a smile curling at her lips.
Lizard’s Thicket, founded by Bob and Anna Williams, is in the midst of its 35th anniversary celebration. In more than three decades of operation, the country cookin’ establishment, where regular customers are known by what they order, has expanded to 14 restaurants in the Midlands and one in Florence.
Lizard’s Thickets serves about 12,000 diners a day, and I was going to the prepping station at the busiest store in the family-owned chain.
“Part of our success in the restaurants is these people know exactly what it’s supposed to taste like,” Bobby Williams, the restaurant’s chairman and one of the founders’ seven children, said. “When we hire new managers, we tell them the customers know.”
In the kitchen
Hattie Gamble bent her braided head down so she could peek over the black rims of her glasses. She’s been in the Lizard’s Thicket kitchen for more than 20 years.
Gamble, who began her shift two hours before my 7 a.m. arrival, was already scooping lima beans into a metal pot. Before Jarvis finished our introduction, Gamble handed me the scooper, a tin mug with a handle.
“Make sure you scoop it level,” she said.
It was hard to get the tin into the almost empty bag.
“That’s not quite a full scoop,” Gamble said. “You having a hard time with this bag, huh?”
Why don’t we just dump the bag in?
“Because I measure, and I want to get the exact amount,” she said.
Fair enough. I was being watched, by curious employees, a photographer, a publicist, the company’s community relations manager and its operations manager. I heard snickering. Here’s where I should apologize to the Carrabba’s Italian Grill staff from the summer of 1997, my only months prepping in a restaurant. My coworkers were probably happy when school started, and I shifted to bussing tables on the night side. I was better suited for a meal’s finale than its beginnings.
“I’m a little nervous, but it’s OK,” Gamble confided. “I’ve trained a lot of people, so I’m used to it. I didn’t get much sleep last night, because I was thinking about it.”
Me neither, but for a different reason. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be on time to clock in.
It was eerily quietly, the silence broken by the tink-tink-tink of a spatula on the short order grill and the clanging door of the dishwasher followed by the swish of water. I couldn’t tell if the restaurant was busy, as my view from the stainless steel countertop was obstructed by ovens.
When does it get busy for breakfast?
“We wouldn’t know it, because we’re back here,” Gamble flatly said. “Kind of pick your speed up because we’ve got a lot to do back here.”
On the prep list: squash, cream corn, collards and more. I was told to scoop fat from a pot of hog jowls. It looked like ice cream with bacon in it, and I hesitated.
“You want to do everything, right?” Gamble asked.
Nah, I just want to hang out with you.
“Oh, really?” My smooth-talking wasn’t work.
Back to the scooping. I put plastic gloves on to retrieve frozen corn kernels from a bag. My fingers numbed. I wanted to scoop or wash — the easy tasks — but Gamble told me to start adding salt and flavoring to our pots.
Actually, you should do that because I’m terrible at... “No, that’s what you’re here for,” she said, cutting me off.
“Can I help you with anything while you’re doing this?” Robert Williams, Lizard’s Thicket’s operations manager, said. (He was everywhere I was while reporting for this story. “Would you say that when everyone else is around?” he said to me. “I live in our restaurants.” True. He lived in a Florence hotel for three months when the company expanded there last year.)
I also balked at measuring margarine.
“I know you’re messing with me now,” Gamble said.
No, and here’s why: I was transporting an open container of butter for Little Caesars Pizza, one of several places I worked in high school, when it spilled in my car, a 1990 CRX. (Red, if you’re wondering.) My dad thought someone had thrown up in there when he drove the car a few days later because it smelled so bad.
I was still in the midst of a good daydream when Gamble placed a knife in my hand that was bigger than anything I have in my kitchen. I handled it loosely.
“Careful with the knife now,” she said, chuckling.
Others lobbed words of precaution my way while Gamble retrieved onions for us to cut. Great. Just do one more. Let me watch you do it again.
“They’re good, they open up your sinuses,” she said. To a passing Robert Williams, she said, “He don’t want to cut no onions.”
“I don’t blame him,” he responded.
I was exceptional at breaking up chunks of beef stew, the bloody pieces racing through my plastic-covered hands. I was also good at rinsing the dirt and grit off the collards leaves, excellent at threading the macaroni and cheese noodles through my fingers.
Bobby Williams walked through the kitchen. I put a finger to a wrist, the universal “you’re late” gesture. He laughed it off.
“This isn’t my first stop,” he said.
Class in session
All new employees must take an orientation class led Sara Krisnow, Lizard’s Thicket’s community relations manager. The three-hour session is an introduction to three decades of history.
“We’re coming. Sorry,” said one of two late servers as they entered the room in the back of the Beltline Boulevard restaurant.
“Do you have pen and paper to take notes?” an impressively patient Krisnow asked.
In 1977, Lizard’s Thicket began in a renovated five-room house on Broad River Road. Today, about 700 people work for the company.
Bob and Anna Williams had four boys and three girls, and now the sons oversee the day-to-day operations. Bobby Williams is chairman; Mark Williams is president; Jimmy Williams is a vice president; and John Williams is a vice president.
Krisnow, one of the Williams family’s 24 grandchildren, is one of only three third-generation employees. She and her cousins, Robert Williams and Matthew Williams, the general manager of the Forest Drive restaurant, are the future leaders of the family-owned chain.
The restaurant was named after a phrase Bob and Anna overheard in Alabama, and it was a last-minute replacement for Anna’s Country Kitchen. Lizard’s Thicket was born because Anna Williams felt there was a need for a home-replacement meal as more women entered the workforce in the ’70s, Krisnow told the class.
“I had one of my customers say the other day, ‘We don’t want any lizards,’ ” one server said. Another mentioned she’s been eating at the restaurant since she was a baby.
“We hear it all. Just know the name came from Hamilton, Ala.,” Krisnow said, steering the conversation on course. “And that we have 15 locations.”
She goes over uniform code before getting to the meat and potatoes. Well, the “meat and three,” which is, to allow room for an idiom, Lizard’s Thicket’s bread and butter. Fried chicken has been the No. 1 meat for 30 years.
Also taught in the orientation class: Lemonade is considered a soft drink; macaroni and cheese and Jell-O ring up as vegetables; once a napkin is on table, it becomes like food and has to be thrown away, which is why you don’t get extra napkins without asking. It’s about paper costs; and if customers ask when or if the country fried skillet apples are coming back, Bobby Williams is working on that.
“Service is the No. 1 reason guests come back,” Krisnow said. “We want to turn customers into regulars.”
A person in the class said they had recently served Gov. Nikki Haley at the Elmwood Avenue location, an announcement that spurred talk of picture taking — and using a phone, period — at work.
“Back to the picture thing,” a woman began, “what if a celebrity comes in, can I go get my phone?”
Back of the house
It’s only 8 a.m. and I’m already wondering — aloud, apparently — when my scheduled break is. I’m an admitted streak worker.
I breaded country fried steak patties before dropping them into grease that crackled.
“Try not to let too much water get in there, because I don’t want to have to change that again,” Gamble said of the flour I dipped the battered steaks in.
“You tired already?” Jarvis said as she turned the corner. A good manager always knows what’s going on in their shop and, I suspect, she had heard about my complaints. I’ve been told that Jarvis, an employee for 31 years, is no nonsense, which might explain why there isn’t a radio blaring a drive-time morning show.
Jarvis was hired as a waitress by Bob and Anna Williams at the original Broad River location. Her customers are like family, and if she hasn’t seen you in a while she’ll call home.
“If you don’t see them for a couple of days or a week, you wonder what happened,” Jarvis said.
She was referring to regulars like Jim and Jewel Hanson, an elderly couple who eat at Lizard’s Thicket twice a day, five days a week.
“It’s our second home. We eat breakfast here every day except Sunday,” Jim Hanson said. “Sunday, we eat dinner after church. We have to stand in line, but oh we still wait.”
“We know everybody in here,” Jewel Hanson said.
“It’s a very special place to us,” Jim Hanson added.
Irmo has been the busiest restaurant since Lizard’s Thicket moved from a nearby shopping center to the sidewalk space on St. Andrews Road in 1999.
“When we moved one block, our business doubled overnight,” Bobby Williams said. “From the first day we opened, it was double. Pretty incredible.”
And speaking of opening, Lizard’s Thicket turns on the lights every day except Christmas.
“We feel bad about that,” Mark Williams said.
“My dad would be open,” Bobby Williams added.
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.