Mike Wilson came, saw and conquered a mini-empire of cool, casual restaurants.

Written by Joe ODonnell/ Photography by Beau Gustafson

Is it the meat or the sauce? For Mike Wilson the answer is both simple and complex.

He likes to say it is both, with one complementing the other. “My sauce complements the meat. It doesnt overtake the meat, it just enhances it,” says Wilson. But beyond the food lies something more important. “It works as long as you have good people who have the passion for the business and pride in what they do,” he says.    

“When I meet someone and they tell me they ate at the restaurant, my stomach still gets in a knot. Until they tell me everything was good,” Wilson says. “Thats what keeps me going every day, making sure the product is consistent like it was when we first started.

“If I see someone take a bite of one of my sandwiches and they smile, then I feel like I did my job.”

Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina with Alabama roots (his parents hailed from Jasper and Parrish in Walker County), Wilson began working in the food business at the age of 14. He’s been in the food business, more or less, ever since.

These days it is definitely more. Wilson has built a small empire of restaurants under the Saw’s moniker in some of the metro’s hottest areas.

Just like his work ethic and his early food experiences, the name of the restaurants echo Wilson’s high school nickname, Sorry-Ass Wilson, or SAW for short.

“My first job was bagging groceries. Later on, I went into the deli and that’s where I got my first taste of cooking. I went to college and figured I might get into restaurant and hotel hospitality but then I realized I really enjoyed the cooking side of it. So I went to culinary school and worked in fine dining. I worked at Dean & DeLuca and places like that,” Wilson says.

“I got a good apprenticeship at places like that, and then I got my foot in the door at Cooking Light magazine as a test kitchen chef and thought I was getting out of the restaurant business. But now I own five or six of them, so I got right back in it. It’s all I know.”

He got back in the business a bit unexpectedly in 2009. “One of our photographers from Cooking Light rented a house behind Broadway BBQ in Homewood for a studio, and I found out from the landlord that the barbecue restaurant was for sale. I called the landlord on a Thursday and said if that guy ever wants out, I’d like to look at the building. The landlord told me he wanted out now and so I went to look at it that day and wrote a check the following Tuesday. I took two weeks’ vacation from Cooking Light magazine and I thought I’d go back to work and just have people run it for me until I got off work at two in the afternoon. But I just never went back. I couldn’t leave it at that point. We got busy from day one, or what I thought was busy back then. It was right in the recession too and we didn’t really know what we were doing. We just went day by day and figured it out,” he says.

To go along with the original BBQ restaurant in Homewood and a newer barbecue outpost near UAB, Wilson with partners now also owns SAW’s Juke Joint in Crestline Park, SAW’s Soul Kitchen in Avondale, and a food truck SAW’s Street Kitchen. He is also a partner in Post Office Pies in Avondale.

“We opened quite a few in a couple years, but it might take us five more years to open another one. It just depends on getting the right people in place. If we don’t have the resources and the people to do it, we can’t execute it and make it the product that we want it to be,” Wilson says.

Saw’s has been recognized for its barbecue from sources as diverse as Mens Journal, Garden & Gun, Sports Illustrated and Cooking with Paula Deen.

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