Back Yard Burgers founder went from grill to boardroom

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Published: February 15,2013

Tags: Back Yard Burgers, hamburgers, Lattie Michael, restaurants

BYBLogoWhen incoming Back Yard Burgers CEO Dave McDougall said he wanted to take the burger chain from bankruptcy back to the basics, he meant it.

The company’s original founder Lattimore “Lattie” Michael had dinner with the newly minted executive recently and says McDougall wants to focus on the quality of the fast food restaurant’s products all the way down to the taste.

“We wanted to use the best bun, pickles, produce, condiments, and ground beef,” Michael told the Mississippi Business Journal in a recent interview. So does McDougall.

First opened in Cleveland, Miss. in 1987, Back Yard Burgers was a popular restaurant that competed in the Southeast for two decades against national fast food empires like McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King.

Michael took the company public in 1994 then sold it to a private investment group led by former Shoney’s executive Stephen Lynn in 2007. The company moved its headquarters from Memphis to Nashville and made other corporate to kitchen changes that Michael says led to its Chapter 11 filing last October.

Born in Rosedale in 1943, Lattie Michael grew up with a father and uncle that cooked at cafes in Cleveland. “Michael’s Cafe had the best food between Memphis and New Orleans,” Michael said they used to say.

Michael finished high school and graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in business administration then began working as a Lipton Tea salesman and later grocery store manager in Rosedale. It wasn’t long before his thoughts turned to restauranting.

Lattie

Lattie

“I really didn’t know for sure what I wanted to sell,” Michael says. “I liked to cook and really wanted to do BBQ.” With so many different techniques and styles of barbeque, a hamburger seemed much more simple and cost efficient. “I didn’t think anybody including Burger King, McDonald’s or Wendy’s had a quality product,” Michael said.

The first double drive-thru Back Yard Burgers opened on Highway 61 in Cleveland and was little more than a 44-foot trailer equipped with a six-foot grill. Michael hand ground his own beef and used gas and lava rocks to charbroil it. Financial backing came from two brothers in the tobacco wholesaling business.

The charbroiling filled the kitchen up with smoke, Michael remembers. “We were the first ones in the country to use gas grills and could have more than forty hamburgers on the grill at one time.” Having the meat grinder and patty machine inside the kitchen also set them apart from local rivals like Rally’s and Checker’s and another golden-arched competitor down the highway.

Michael says he got the name for Back Yard Burgers from a neon sign he saw hanging inside the old Jackson Brewery in New Orleans that advertised “The great American backyard cookout.”

“A hot dog company in New York had the trademark for a while,” Michael says. “The judge sold it to me for $18,000 after they went bankrupt.”

While BYB started with 30 different hamburgers (“One for every day of the month,” Michael says) they saw early success with their blackened burger and chicken sandwiches. Milkshakes were hand dipped and blended like in an old drug store. Michael attempted a waffle fry concept similar to Chick-fil-A but never succeeded.

“No matter what kind of oil or process, they were great if you ate them in the first five minutes,” he said.

Michael sold the first Back Yard Burger franchise to a Clarksdale businessman in 1988. Cleveland CPA Gary Gainspolatti and Jackson attorney Bridgforth Rutledge opened the first two in Jackson on Old Canton Road and on State Street across from the bustling University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Other franchises cropped up in Memphis, Knoxville and Destin.

“Dolly Parton would eat at the one in Nashville all the time,” Michael said. “I didn’t really know anything about franchising. These people were so impressed with the food and the quality.”

Michael said BYB won recognition from Consumer Reports magazine and was named the best tasting hamburger in 25 cities across the country.

The company’s original griller-in-chief has since retired to Memphis and now spends his time with grandchildren, church activities, Rotary Club and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital events.

While Michael admits he took BYB public so he could grow it, Michael said the regulations in a post-Sarbanes Oxley financial world made the process more cost prohibitive for smaller companies.

Occasionally through the years, Michael has served as an unofficial consultant to the restaurant industry, rubbing shoulders with everyone from Chili’s Norman Brinker to Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy. He says the late founder of Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits Al Copeland loved his burgers.

“I wish them the very best,” Michael said of the future of Back Yard Burger. “If I can help them in any way I’m a phone call away.”

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