A lot has changed since 1985.
You want to head over to Toot’s for a chicken finger basket with some ranch dressing on the side for dipping?
Not happening in the restaurant’s early years.
“We didn’t have chicken fingers the first 10 years we were in business,” says Toot’s owner Wade Hayes. “Nobody had heard of chicken fingers then.
“We didn’t have ranch dressing yet. It wasn’t popular; people ate blue cheese back then,” Hayes continues. “We didn’t have catfish in the early days. We served white fish. Catfish was something you ate when you went fishing. It wasn’t raised and distributed like it is now.”
Of course, going to Toot’s originally meant traveling to the corner of Broad Street and Medical Center Parkway (f.k.a. Lokey Avenue) and not to the other locations the company would later add on South Church Street in Murfreesboro, Sam Ridley Parkway in Smyrna and in Bowling Green, Ky., and Cincinnati.
Toot’s did offer a few of their time-tested tasty items right off the bat.
“We brought Buffalo wings, fried pickles into the arena,” Hayes said. “Nobody in Middle Tennessee served Buffalo wings until Toot’s did.”
Of course, technology and ways to reach customers have changed drastically since then too.
“Four years ago, I was the guy who was writing up managers for being on Facebook while they were at work,” Hayes says. “Now, it’s mandatory. You’re written up if you’re not on Facebook promoting,”
Today, after a couple of decades of evolution, occasional menu additions, tweaks here and there and a steady growth trend upwards, Toot’s stands ingrained as a legitimate piece of Murfreesboro culture, as much a part of the city’s landscape and history as MTSU or the Stones River Battlefield.
The business has become a huge fan of local athletics as well. Toot’s supports the MTSU Blue Raiders and area high school athletic programs with its money and messaging; often, when Murfreesboro’s hardest-throwing MLB hurler David Price takes the mound, the restaurant’s sign invites hungry customers to come in and watch the game that evening on TV as they dine.
One can always catch up on news from the Vietnam war and MTSU’s baseball season from decades ago as Toot’s adorns its tables with newspapers from years past.
Toot’s is known far and wide for its wings and pickle chips and is surely the most popular spot in the county for oysters.
The onion rings are awesome; the massive circles of onion are coated in a wonderful light, crispy breading and are perfectly salted and seasoned. Come to find out, the onion rings are not even sliced and battered, let alone fried, until the customer orders them.
For something unique, try the frog leg basket, served with a tasty cherry mustard sauce.
The restaurant is usually hoppin’ during lunch (there’s almost always room for one more though), thanks in large part to the rotating lunch specials, such as the $4.99 chicken finger basket.
“We raised them a dollar last year,” (from $3.99) Hayes says. “Most people didn’t notice. It’s still a great deal, and to only raise it a dollar over the past 20 years is saying a lot.”
Today, not only can you can order chicken fingers, you can request them tossed in one of Toot’s sauces, if you like.
Recent additions to the menu include bacon cheese fries, a new and improved steak sandwich with an 8 oz. ribeye, BBQ sliders and cheeseburger sliders. Hayes says the Toot’s team worked for months perfecting their sliders before he would allow them on the menu.
“I love the concept of a small hamburger, but every time I’d order a slider out somewhere, no matter how much I paid for it, it would be dry and tough. Try a Toot’s slider and tell me if it isn’t juicy,” he says.
Another recent development for Toot’s, their sauces are now available by the bottle, mail-order. Hot, medium and mild wing sauce, BBQ sauce and honey mustard bottle are all available at shoptoots.com, along with shirts, hats, gift cards and more.
The beers offered at Toot’s have changed quite a bit over the years as well. They now offer a selection of imports and craft beers to evolve with changing palates and culture and have replaced the smaller handle mugs with pint glasses.
“In the ’90s, people didn’t drink draft imports. They just didn’t do it . . . it would be like sweet tea in Cincinati,” Hayes says with a laugh, noting that sales of sweet tea in the Cincinnati store did not immediately explode, but Toot’s more Northern customers have since developed a taste for the sweet Southern beverage.
“We wanted all of our restaurants to have the same food, the same product, the same music; hours of operation, the specials are the same,” Hayes said. “But they still all have different identities. In Cincinnati, people are all wearing jerseys with big X’s on them, for Xavier. They don’t know what MTSU is. Same thing here. People love MTSU, but don’t really know what Xavier University is.
“Do you know what Xavier University is,” Hayes asks one of the Toot’s servers, taking a quick informal survey.
“Is that one of the online universities?” she replies.
“See?” Hayes says.
The oldest full-service restaurant in Rutherford County has seen plenty of other restaurants come and go over the decades. Hayes stays very aware of their coming and going, in fact. He keeps a timeline of when any restaurant that may present competition for Toot’s opened, and approximately two-thirds of them have a line through them indicating that they have since closed. (Anyone remember Cooker, Santa Fe, Davy Crockett’s, Schlotzsky’s Deli, Fuddrucker’s, Puffing Billy’s? The list goes on and on.)
“Chili’s and Hooters opened up the same month on me,” Hayes says, pointing to late 1996 on his timeline. “I couldn’t sleep that month; I thought ‘the plane is crashing.’”
But sure enough, though sales took a brief dip, the people of Murfreesboro continued supporting Toot’s, the home of good food and fun.
Opening the second location on Church Street is a testament to the city’s, and the company’s, growth.
“We scored a good deal over there. We look at I-24 as the Mississippi River. (Broad Street) takes everything on this side, Toot’s South pulls from the neighborhoods on their side,” he says.
Having the second location was incredibly fortunate for the company in the spring of 2011, when damage from a tornado forced the original location to close for repairs.
“When those storms hit here, the business at Toot’s South spiked,” Hayes says.
While Hayes has clearly poured a lot of time and energy into Toot’s over the years, he is quick to credit his team around him for a lot of the company’s success.
“We have a great director of operations, Bill McCrary,” Hayes says. “John Floyd became a partner in 2007 to help finance growth.
“Endeavor Marketing and Media allowed me to open Toot’s South. Harold and Jason came in and sat in my office for two days, and they explained to me how Facebook works, how Twitter works, how social networking works. Those guys are marketing geniuses . . . We are so blessed to have Lewis Bakery right here, which is a major bread company, right across the street. We get buns fresh every morning.”
In his time capsule of an office, surrounded by Toot’s posters, menus, sales data and imagery from years past and a prominent sign reminding him that “Success is a journey, not a destination,” Hayes grows reflective as he talks of his restaurant, his career, his family, his employees.
“I’ll be 50 this coming year, and I’ve been sitting in this same seat since I was 24,” he says. “I was back here when I was 24 and they (many members of the Toot’s staff) were 22. Now, I’m almost 50 . . . and they’re still 22.”
860 NW Broad St., 2992 S. Church St., 301 Sam Ridley Parkway W., Smyrna
(615) 898-1301, (615) 410-3335, (615) 223-8858
Tricycle Sampler (pick 3 appetizers): $9.97; Grilled Cajun chicken salad: $7.88; Half-pound burger: $4.99; Full rack of ribs platter: $14.66 ($10.99 on Sunday!)