From California to New York, Tom Morales has served Southern bites to Hollywood heavyweights like Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey and Gwyneth Paltrow. In fact, the Nashville native has taken his TomKats catering company to movie sets all over the world for nearly 30 years now (he’s currently on location of Harrison Ford’s upcoming film, Ender’s Game), feeding cast and crew for weeks on end.
Eleven years ago, Morales saw the strain that the constant traveling had on some of his seasoned employees, so he decided to open a restaurant in downtown Franklin for those who needed a break. In 2002, Saffire Restaurant & Bar opened in the historic Factory at Franklin, a hip new spot billed as “a neighborhood restaurant with a big-city feel” dedicated to serving a different set of luminaries – locals and legends alike.
“Catering is hard work. You’re on the road a lot, and it’s a great life, but at some point you get tired. The concept for Saffire was born out of loyalty to those people who gave us their lives on the road,” he said. “Saffire is a place for our people to take a break, and the menu here is representative of what TomKats does and our influence.”
When Morales first launched Saffire, he says the community’s culinary scene was drastically different than today’s ever-growing one. The restaurant, which sprinkles his love for Cajun and Carolina low-country cuisine into its seafood and Southern dishes, added a local option to the chain-dominated offerings of the early 2000s.
“Franklin and Middle Tennessee were once what I call ‘white bread communities,’ in that they leaned toward plain eating. But in the last 10 years, that’s all changed,” he said. “People are now looking for a little more adventure in their dinners. We provide more of a culinary experience than a cookie-cutter restaurant.”
Because he’s spent much of his time in coastal towns – Morales helped launch Destin, Fla. staples Harbor Docks and The Back Porch – Saffire’s menu is a seafood-dominated one. Dishes like the fish & grits combine locally grown product and exotic ingredients, while Southern staples such as chicken fried chicken nod to Morales’ Tennessee roots. Other favorites include the pit smoked and spiced prime rib, the seasonal pastas, fresh-caught entrees and low-country appetizers like oysters on the half shell and crab cakes.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in Charleston, so many dishes emanated from that region,” Morales said. “We’ve found that there are two ends of the spectrum when it comes to diners: one being the crunchy (vegetarian) and the other being meat and potatoes. We’re always sensitive to both, and we listen to our guests at Saffire.
“We’re culinary minded, but we won’t force you to eat chef-inspired dinners that you don’t want.”
Nestled in the heart of the former stove factory, Saffire’s interior complements the exterior urban warehouse feel through its décor and early aesthetic choices – like the exposed kitchen that allows guests to watch staff stoke the Tennessee Hickory coals in the hand-built smoker, and prepare their meals on the iron grill.
Because Morales wanted to build a neighborhood spot, he purposefully selected installments and furniture that added warmth to the cavernous space. The restaurant’s bar, for example, is a 200-year-old piece that’s seen cocktails slung from the Bowery Room in London to watering holes in Texas, New York and Nevada.
“The flavor we’ve created is a comfortable, warm space. I think of it as a Cheers-type place, a community restaurant and bar that we hope you come to and are recognized,” he said. “Saffire is genuine hospitality coupled with really great food.”
Saffire’s vibe echoes Morales’ personal sentiment about the restaurant business, which demonstrates why he’s stayed in the industry so long.
“I think that in any service-related business, you have to have a genuine love of people,” he said. “I have worked really, really hard but I’ve always tried to find the things that make me smile. Often that’s service aspect of it: you work for the compliment, for the ‘that was a great meal.’ Then you don’t count the hours.”
In addition to Saffire Restaurant, TomKats, Inc. also owns the Southern Steak and Oyster and the Loveless Café. For more information about Saffire, visit its website at www.saffirerestaurant.com.
This is part of a series on merchants in downtown Franklin, Tenn. that runs in the Williamson Herald each Thursday.