Lawton Haygood and the “Tuff Grill”

Posted on January 28, 2011

Lawton Haygood is part innovative entrepreneur and part savvy restaurateur. The combination has been a recipe for success for the 61-year-old Georgia native and his wife, Karen. The couple has built a loyal following with the Canyon Grill on Lookout Mountain and the popular Boathouse Rotisserie & Raw Bar on the banks of the Tennessee River and Sugar’s Ribs in Chattanooga.

Since entering the restaurant business in the late 1970s, Haygood has invented a first-of-its-kind wood-burning grill for restaurants, a cast-iron skillet with open holes in the bottom for his fire-roasted oysters and a chute that transports freshly made ice from a tube in the ceiling to the pit in the center of the Boathouse’s raw bar.

A native of the Chattanooga area – where he developed a passion for food from his father’s interest in open pit barbequing and his mother’s ham curing business – he moved to Dallas and entered the insurance business after earning a degree in economics from the University of Georgia.

Eventually, the charismatic and anxious entrepreneur grew tired of his first profession. When a fire damaged the historic townhouse where his business was located, he served as the general contractor and oversaw the renovation. That spurred Haygood to refurbish and sell other townhouses in the area, leading him to pursue the opportunity on a full-time basis until interest rates skyrocketed in the early 1980s.

Left with another career decision, Haygood ventured on a retreat to Port Aransas, a tarpon fishing town on the Gulf of Mexico in Texas. There, he ate at a waterfront restaurant that caught his attention. After speaking to the owner, who was selling the place, Haygood found himself in the restaurant business.

Before he introduced the signature selections at Canyon Grill and the Boathouse, Haygood developed a first-of-its-kind wood-burning grill in the late 1970s when he served seafood at his restaurant, Turtle Cove, in Dallas.

The traditional grill tends to burn hot in one spot and cool in another, which isn’t ideal when you’re cooking a high volume of orders. Haygood’s solution was to create a grill that operates on the principal of the convection oven. It cooks food faster and more evenly. The wood smoke intensifies the flavor of the food.

After designing the grill, Haygood was featured in Time Magazine, called a pioneer in mesquite grilling and received numerous calls from restaurateurs nationwide who asked him to make a grill for them. He soon found himself building and installing grills in restaurant chains like J. Alexander’s and Grady’s. Before selling his interest in the manufacturing company he and a partner formed, Haygood worked with some of the country’s most renowned chefs, including Wolfgang Puck. He has since created a second-generation model, called the Tuff Grill that prepares the cuisine at Canyon Grill, Boathouse and Sugar Ribs.