Right out of high school Jack began working his way up the ladder into management within the Country Club scene in Nashville. First at Richland, then Hillwood and then onto Nashville City Club as GM, then striking out on his own to start Cawthon’s Caterer, Inc. in 1976. He quickly became one of Nashville’s favorite Society Caterers, often greeting guests in his tuxedo while serving up beluga caviar or to carve the rare beef tenderloin with béarnaise sauce.
From Humble Beginnings
From Caterer To Restaurateur
While catering Nashville social functions and facing the economic challenges brought on by the recession of the late 1970’s, Jack remembered the Henry Ford quote, “Cater to the masses and dine with the classes.” With these words Jack decided that he was ready to make a change from catering and felt the timing was right too as Nashville had a void when it came to offering good old fashioned bar-b-que. Several well-known bar-b-que families of Nashville’s past had come and gone during the 50’s and 60’s: such as Nick Varallo’s, Charlie Nicken’s, and Jim Coursey. Up until that time, as in Memphis, pork was king and sauce was boss. So after much study and travel Jack came up with his own style of bar-b-que that he wanted to offer; a combination of Texas and Tennessee, introducing beef brisket and also creating a variety of regionally inspired sauces.
Bar-B-Que Families of Nashville’s Past
Pit Master, Charles Young
In 1989, Jack Cawthon stood styled in his distinctive riverboat hat on that opening day of the original Jack’s Bar-B-Que, right there on the corner of Broadway and 1st Avenue in a tiny concrete block building overlooking Riverfront Park. It was the first casual restaurant on Broadway to open after many years of decline in the area. Some people even say it was Jack’s Bar-B-Que that started the current revitalization of lower Broadway. With his steady stream of hickory smoke, locals and visitors alike soon came and told others while in Nashville, “Go to Jack’s!”
A Second Location Opens
A second location opened in 1990 right off of I-65 North at Trinity Lane. This location came about from listening to his employees and customers describe the places that they often frequented. At the time Opryland Theme Park was thriving and many out-of-towners would lodge along Trinity Lane & Brick Church Pike while visiting both downtown and the park. Today Jack’s Bar-B-Que at Trinity Lane is thriving, becoming a designation for locals and travelers going north and south along I-65 & I-24.
Jack's On Trinity Lane
The Original Jack's Bar-B-Que Relocates
In 1994, Jack lost his lease to the original Riverfront location and the building itself was soon torn down to make a new parking lot for the Hard Rock Cafe. Exhausted and in search of a location to relocate to, Jack asked his employees for advice on where to move. Their reply was to relocate to the Ryman, Tootsies and Ernest Tubb Record Shop area. After all, these were the attractions most often frequented and inquired about by customers. Jack followed their advice and moved the restaurant to its current location at 416 Broadway and this time he bought the building.
Broadway, Nashville, TN
Pigs Over Broadway
In 1996 the Metropolitan Council of Nashville held a controversial debate over a Planet Hollywood business sign. The oversized neon sign had been put up without a permit. A councilman was quoted as saying, “If allowed to stay, I guess the next thing will be pigs over Broadway.” Jack seized upon this opportunity and replied, “Pigs do fly, why not three? Let the pigs fly!” The now famous neon Jack’s Bar-B-Que sign has become a widely recognizable Nashville landmark and is often featured in movies, commercials, music videos, popular TV shows, and sporting events showcasing Nashville’s professional sports teams during NHL and NFL broadcast games.
Jack On Jeopardy
In 2011 the TV show Jeopardy featured Jack with this question: Jack Cawthon the “Bar-B-Que King” of this town, has a restaurant overlooking the Ryman.
A Third Location Opens
In 2013 a 3rd location opened at 1601 Charlotte Ave., at the foot of Capital Hill on the corner of McMillin St & 16th Ave. west off I-40 & I-65. Located on the historic site of what once was a corner of the first State Penitentiary of Tennessee, 1831-1898. For this location, Jack chose to use and trademark his full name, Jack Cawthon’s Bar-B-Que, taking it back to the early days of Nashville when neighborhood bar-b-que joints used the proprietors full name.
Jack Cawthon's Bar-B-Que on Charlotte Ave.
The BBQ Roundtable
July 4th 2014 marked the BBQ roundtable: 5 of Nashville’s best pit masters talk meat, sauce and style. The all-star panel was brought together by The City Paper editor Steve Cavendish, Nashville Scene editor Jim Ridley and food writer Chris Chamberlain. Let the discussion begin: Pig or cow? Sauce or not? Tomato or vinegar? A dry rub or salt and pepper? “To Jack’s credit he opened the door for Nashville to serve “Beef Brisket and regional sauces.”
Best BBQ City In The USA
In 2014 Travel + Leisure Magazine rated Nashville #1 over Memphis as the best BBQ city in the USA. Jack has certainly done his part in raising the bar and making Nashville a national BBQ destination.
Entreprenuer, Public Speaker, and Philanthropist
Jack is not only known for his award-winning sauces and hickory smoked meats, but also for his years of service in leadership roles involving the downtown, Trinity Lane & Brick Church Pike areas and most recently along Charlotte Avenue. Over the years he has received numerous awards from a variety of organizations and his peers. He is seen regularly holding court and speaking out to collectively find ways to improve the community and bring people together, helping orchestrate a better place for future generations.Jack can often be seen with his son Jay in the restaurants, checking in with the managers and employees on procedures, greeting guests and showing appreciation. Jack came home for dinner one night excited to share his good news. He said, “Honey, I signed a lease today, we are going into business!” She replied, “Honey, I have good news too, I’m pregnant!” 37 years later and their son Jay is now the COO of the company, having started full time when he was 16 and prior to that he spent numerous weekends standing on a Coke-Cola case to pour ice tea for guests during catering events. He too, like his dad, has climbed his way up the ladder working all positions in the restaurants.