For Mike Wilson aka SAW, growing up in North Carolina meant a whole lot of good times BS’ing and backyard barbecuing with friends. In high school, Mike Wilson earned himself the nickname, Sorry Ass Wilson, for assorted reasons that may not be revealed here. Despite the moniker, Mike went on to the hospitality business by earning a degree in Restaurant and Hospitality management from the University of Alabama in 1996. Following this, Mike continued his studies in the culinary school at Johnson and Wales University in Vail, Colorado.
Back home in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mike went to work as a sous chef – a great starting point – at Dean & Deluca. This multi-channel retailer of gourmet and specialty foods was a great place for Mike to hone his craft. Over the next ten years land while Mike was working as a test-kitchen chef at Cooking Light in Birmingham, word was spreading among his co-workers that Mike made some pretty awesome barbeque. His email list grew to more than 200 people.
On his days off, Mike and a friend continued to study and learn more about the fine art of Southern barbeque. He’d done this for years since back in high school. Smoking just the right cuts of beef and pork takes time, labor and finesse, and Mike was willing to put in the hours for all three. Slow roasting over North Carolina hickory wood. “We would stay up all night drinking beer and sitting beside the pit smoking meat,” he recalls. “We made it a mission to see if we could do it and how good we could make it.”
By 2009, when the opportunity arose to open SAW’s Barbeque, in Homewood, it was more by happy accident than intention. When Broadway BBQ announced it would be going out of business, Mike sent the owner a note, saying when he was ready to sell, Mike was ready to buy. Soon enough, the owner was ready. Mike says the place became available on a Thursday, and he had the deal by the following Tuesday. He took two weeks off his job to get it rolling. He figured his employees could run things while he kept working days, and would take over at night. It was a small place, just 12- 15 tables on a busy street in a residential neighborhood.
Word spread fast and Mike needed to commit full-time to this popular place. And like any reputable “hole-in-the wall” Mike focused on the food, not the décor. The offering were standard Carolina style pulled pork sandwiches, barbeque chicken, falloff the bone ribs, with a few new items to take the experience up a notch. There is a white barbeque sauce for chicken, a little tribute to a favorite from North Carolina. He wanted to feed people with quality and affordability, yet still stick t what he knows best: authentic Southern cuisine. He even kept on his menu, the stuffed taters that were on the previous owner’s menu, for a little familiarity. And everyday, the line up snakes down the street!
Mike also recognized early in the business, that key to a great barbeque establishment is its signature sauce. SAW’s BBQ has just that, from Mike’s own creativity. It’s true to tradition in that sweet concoction on tangy and vinegar goodness,…and a few secrets. It’s a little thinner than most, which makes it great for dipping, meat, taters and bread. SAW’s Sauce is famous and has been available now for the last 5 years in bottled take home sizes. It’s also available in local grocery stores. “It’s a perfect name for a product developed over the course of so many good time with good friends of days gone by,” confesses Mike.
The success of SAW’S BBQ restaurant, and sauce, has led to many favorable reviews from barbecue aficionados, across the state, and the country. Mike has stayed true to the heart of the business and when it came time to expand, he did so with care. The restaurant offers catering for parties and events, and just about everything is available for take out.
SAW’s Soul Kitchen
Now, the secret’s getting out about Wilson’s new venture, Saw’s Soul Kitchen, a barbecue and soul-food joint that he opened in 2012 in the former Quick Split Bar-B-Q location in Avondale, just down the block from the Avondale Brewing Company. SAW’S Soul Kitchen opened in Avondale, under the helm of head chef Brandon Cain.
The SAW’s name speaks for itself, but Wilson upped the ante when he brought in Brandon Cain, the former chef de cuisine at Ocean, to be his executive chef and part-owner at Saw’s Soul Kitchen.
Before Ocean, Cain got his feet wet in the restaurant business while living in New Orleans, where he worked at Emeril Lagasse’s NOLA Restaurant, Mr. B’s Bistro and Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse.
SAW’s Juke Joint
Later that year, Mike successes led him to consider expanding the business and the marketability of the brand SAW’S. He partnered with Doug Smith, who was a restaurateur in the Crestline neighborhood, owning Otey’s at one point, and Smith’s Oysters & Steaks. Mike and Doug ventured into a version of the original restaurant focusing on “soul food”.
Mike and Doug found a third partner, American Idol celebrity, and local boy, Taylor Hicks to work with on a third location.
Back home in Alabama, Mr. Hicks used his love of home cooking to open up ORE Drink and Dine Restaurant in Crestline Park. In the fall of 2011 the restaurant was acclaimed “Best New Restaurant” by Birmingham Magazine The following October, Taylor wanted to expand the restaurant experience by offering live music, so with his new partners, known for their exceptional Southern cuisine, they re-opened in the same location as SAW’S Juke Joint.