Sustainability on the Menu

Tom Morales built a restaurant empire with an emphasis on environmental efforts

By Jessy Yancey

Fin & Pearl may be the newest venture for restaurateur Tom Morales, but he considers it his flagship. The seafood-centric eatery in the Gulch, which opened in December, uses an app to track when, where and by whom each fish was caught. Water glasses made from recycled wine bottles sit on wooden tables built from sustainably harvested trees downed by a hurricane in Nicaragua. Behind the scenes, employees recycle grease, save oyster shells to be repurposed into gravel and concrete, and instead of throwing food into the trash, an ORCA liquid composter turns waste into water.

“We donâ€TMt do it to save on our garbage bill,” Morales says. “We do it because itâ€TMs the right thing to do.”

Doing the right thing helped Morales build his culinary empire. As a young restaurant manager, he figured out he could guarantee fresh seafood year-round by paying fishermen a better price in the summer, when it was plentiful, and theyâ€TMd remain loyal to him in the winter, when other restaurants had to rely on frozen seafood. “It gave us a competitive advantage in the marketplace, and we take that same philosophy here,” Morales says. “We want local farmers to grow for our needs and the amount of product that we can move.”

With restaurants like The Southern Steak & Oyster Bar, which sees 2,000 customers a day, they can move a lot of product. After starting out exclusively serving Bear Creek Farm beef, they grew beyond what the Leiperâ€TMs Fork farm could provide. Still, theyâ€TMve kept the low geographic footprint by also sourcing from Kentucky, meaning fewer food miles and less fuel and other resources than beef from the Midwest.

Feeding a crowd comes naturally to Morales, who grew up just north of Nashville in Madison as one of 10 children. “Learning how to cook was a prerequisite for being in the Morales family,” he says. “We would learn how to cook cheap cuts of meat and make them taste good. I always say the difference between a cook and a chef is that anybody can cook a filet. With a chef, they take that bad cut of meat, the gristle and everything in it, they make it where itâ€TMs as good as the filet.”

He credits his motherâ€TMs ability to stretch everything with his success in catering: “I had an education maybe I wasnâ€TMt always aware of.” Morales says, laughing, that until he went to college, he didnâ€TMt realize that you werenâ€TMt supposed to add oats to hamburgers. “Now, thatâ€TMs the healthy thing to do.”

After years of working in restaurants, Moralesâ€TM first professional catering gig came about when Starwood Amphitheater opened in 1986. By the time the outdoor concert season ended, he had the experience and money to market his catering business, TomKats. “This was when country music started doing videos, which meant being more concerned with image,” Morales says. “All of a sudden, I was the only healthy caterer in town, doing fresh seafood, lentil beans and brown rice.”

The video shoots grew into catering for a movie filming in Nashville, which inadvertently put Morales on the map. By serving on buffets instead of through a window, TomKats could feed a movie setâ€TMs 1,500 workers in 15 minutes, revolutionizing the industry. “We innovated through sheer ignorance,” he says.

Some 2,000 movies later, including “Groundhog Day” and “A League of Their Own,” Morales and his team have traveled around the globe, from Budapest to Easter Island. But by 2001, he wanted an alternative to life on the road.

“Restaurants came around because we wanted to rest our people and have a place to train,” Morales says. TomKats opened Saffire at The Factory in Franklin and, a few years later, purchased and renovated the iconic Loveless Cafe. The Southern, located on the first level of the Pinnacle building, came along in 2012, followed by the multistory Acme Feed & Seed on Lower Broadway. Housing a music venue and radio station, Acme even gives its staff the chance to perform.

“People in Nashville have a day job and a dream,” Morales says. “So we give them 30 hours a week, health insurance, 401(k)s, and they feel secure and can still go pursue their music.”

That emphasis on employee quality of life, he says, means low turnover and less time spent training new people. But Morales knows he asks a lot of his associates, as he calls them, especially at Fin & Pearl. He points to the extra work required for the liquid composter. “You ask people to go back there and separate food out, where they used to just throw it in the trash—thatâ€TMs a commitment,” he says.

Fin & Pearl Chef de Cuisine Dale Levitski and TomKats Executive Chef Matt Farley joke that they had to retrain themselves not to toss food in the garbage. Still, both credit Morales with giving them the resources to select the best ingredients.

“It really shows in the quality of what weâ€TMre getting,” Farley says. “Iâ€TMve never worked in a restaurant where weâ€TMre so hyper-aware of where things are coming from. But today, thatâ€TMs more important to [the] end user.”

Levitski says itâ€TMs only the beginning. “Weâ€TMre just at the surface of what we can do,” he says. “As we evolve and grow, we can get more in depth with the sustainability.”

Even beyond the high sustainability bar set by Fin & Pearl, Morales has more plans in the works. Saffire is undergoing a “greening” spearheaded by Jennifer Masley, whoâ€TMs also preparing to open the latest TomKats endeavor, EiO & the Hive, a restaurant, juice bar and market on Charlotte.

For Morales, who participated in environmental protests in the 1970s, sustainability isnâ€TMt a fad; itâ€TMs a way of life, and heâ€TMs dedicated to making an impact.

“Real change comes through economic change,” Morales says. “It takes entrepreneurs who are committed, in our case, to the environment. Sustainability and transparency—thatâ€TMs what weâ€TMre after.”