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Columbia Business Monthly

After 42 years, The Lizard's Thicket is working to stay current - yet familiar

Mar 05, 2020 02:47PM ● By Leigh Savage

By Leigh Savage

In the Midlands, everyone knows “The Thicket,” but CEO Bobby Williams says the local chain has surprisingly far-flung fans. He often meets people while traveling, and when he mentions he is from Columbia, many say, “Oh, that’s the place with the Lizard’s Thicket” - before finding out it’s his family business. 

As CEO and co-owner, Williams is proud of how the restaurant chain has evolved and grown over the past 40 years without changing its core mission or its most popular recipes. The company now has 15 locations - 14 in the Columbia area and one in Florence - and more than 700 employees, and Williams is entering his second year as chairman of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association. 

“We are really a part of the community now,” Williams says. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in that. We’ve come to be the kitchen table for a lot of people.”

The first Lizard’s Thicket opened in Columbia in 1977, created by Bobby’s parents Bob and Anna Williams. It was supposed to be Anna’s Country Kitchen, but a similarly named restaurant already existed, so Bob Williams threw out another name that had caught his eye: Lizard’s Thicket. “I think there was some Scotch involved,” Bobby Williams jokes. 

The younger Williams grew up in the restaurant and knew the family business was his calling. “I started as a grill cook, and it’s just instant gratification,” he says. “You can make something, serve it to someone, and you can please them right away.”

The restaurant struck a chord with the community, as people wanted a meal that tasted home-cooked without having to do the cooking at home. An extensive menu meant that people could eat at the restaurant multiple times per week - or even per day. “This isn’t bragging, but we still feed people five times a week, and sometimes twice a day,” Williams says. “We’ve always had customers who come twice a day.”

Meat and three - and more

While the menu has grown, certain mainstays are sacred. Fried chicken is No. 1, followed by fried flounder at No. 2 and meatloaf, served every Wednesday to its own fan group. Macaroni and cheese has long been the most popular side. 

But Williams, his three brothers and their children - the third generation of ownership - make sure to add items to appeal to customers of all stripes. Lower sodium offerings and salads are available to people wanting healthier choices, and the team is researching plant-based protein options for breakfast. 

The company is also in the midst of remodeling and updating all 15 locations. “We’ve done seven so far,” Williams says. “We’re keeping them comfortable but brightening them up.” 

He and his team are always looking for opportunities to grow, and “Generation 3,” as he has dubbed his children and their cousins, is considering possibilities such as bringing in new partners, owner-operators or franchisees, but it comes down to finding the right fit. 

Several years ago, the company sold a franchise in Greenville, but “they didn’t operate it the way they should,” he said, and it closed. The leadership is now more aware of finding the right partners for expansion. 

Another growing trend at the restaurant, and in the industry nationwide, is carry-out: Williams says it accounts for 50 percent of the company’s business. Lizard’s Thicket relies on drive-through windows, but Williams knows delivery is the next step. “We haven’t been happy with any delivery service,” he says. “We were No. 1 in the city (for delivery), but we didn’t like the way (the delivery partner) operated. But we know people want delivery, so we just have to find the right partner.”

The main challenge facing the restaurants is staffing. Williams says manufacturing is taking many employees who worked in restaurants, and to help maintain their 700 employees, he and his team make sure everyone makes more than minimum wage.

One of his projects for the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, ProStart, offers another pipeline for potential employees. ProStart is a two-year high school program that brings industry and classroom together to develop restaurant and foodservice leaders. Williams says the program is in 50 schools and works with more than 2,500 students.

“With ProStart students, we can bring in a whole new group of people interested in the restaurant business,” he says. He points out that the restaurant business is one of few professions where you can start off as a dishwasher, learn the ropes and end up owning a restaurant. 

With restaurants getting more than 50 percent of the nation’s food dollar, according to USDA research, there is ample room for success stories, he says, and the job is “whatever you make of it.” He has had several employees start out at the Lizard’s Thicket and go on to launch successful restaurants. 

The SCRLA is focusing on legislation that helps the tourism business, he says. One recent initiative is trying to prevent the school start date from creeping back into the summer months. “A lot of these restaurants depend on high school students, and the season isn’t over until Labor Day,” he says.

Next on the agenda at Lizard’s Thicket will be a wave of political activity as presidential candidates swing by to greet potential voters. “They will all come by because they want a crowd,” Williams says. “It will be interesting.”