When former Marine Brian Sabo was in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, on rooftops of submerged buildings, he had just gotten back from the Middle East.
He hadn’t been to New Orleans before, but what he saw was nothing like he had imagined. There was no magic, only tragedy.
He knew he was on American soil, but it felt more like a third-world country.
That experience made Sabo promise that, one day, he would do something to share the Cajun spirit.
Now, with the recent opening of Chattanooga’s Meo Mio’s Cajun Restaurant, he’s fulfilled that promise.
The name of the franchise, which has two other locations in Tennessee, came from the old Hank Williams song “Jambalaya on the Bayou.”
The other two locations are in smaller cities-one in Bath Springs, Tenn., and one near Paris, Tenn.
Sabo decided to open another store after stopping at one of the other locations.
He sold some stock and got the money for his new business. He declined to discuss how much the project cost.
“I think you need to constantly push in life,” he said. “Once you become stagnant, that’s when you’re done for.”
He said he considered moving to Catalina, Calif., or a “beautiful place” in Oregon. He knew he wanted to look outside his window every morning and see nature or a cityscape or both.
He also knew he wanted to be surrounded by young, vibrant entrepreneurs.
After discovering that Chattanooga had the fastest Internet in the country, he took his Harley to Gig City for a visit.
“They have mountains, water-they’ve got the fastest Internet,” he said. “This is the best thing ever.”
Until he finds a house to buy, he’s staying in a hotel. He thinks the housing prices in Chattanooga are a bit inflated, but, mostly, the city is ideal.
He said he knows he’s missed a little bit of the city’s rise, but he said he thinks he is here early enough to contribute and capitalize.
He is striving to have a “fun, safe” restaurant-not a bar. He made that distinction, although the restaurant does offer speciality cocktails with high-quality ingredients.
It’s also one of the few places that offer absinthe.
Sabo remembers a time in the ’90s when families, couples and groups of friends got dressed up and excited to go out to dinner.
The economy wasn’t in the best shape then, and when people wanted to go out, maybe once a month, they wanted a quality experience, he said.
“I want to bring that kind of magic back,” he said. “I think you can do it with Cajun.”
Atmosphere and art
Sabo said he sat in every seat in the room to make sure customers would be satisfied when looking at the big-screen television.
The restaurant also has a dance floor and a stage for bands to play. Sabo only wants Cajun-influenced musicians, so the music keeps with the vibe of the business.
About 40 employees work in the 75,000-square-foot restaurant that has patio seating, a sunroom, a private room, a bar and a indoor balcony.
The business can hold about 280 people, with a capacity of about 25 in the private room.
Sabo pointed out the view of the mountains that customers can see from the restaurant.
Snyder said he used 2,600 pounds of clay for the creation, which took about 11 weeks to make, working 10 or 11 hours a day, he said.
He made it about 22 years ago but not specifically for the restaurant, he said.
Another local artist, Matt Dutton, created paintings for the restaurant.
Sabo said he personally likes the downtown Chattanooga scene. He’s visited locations, such as Hair of the Dog, The Honest Pint and Track 29, and he said he doesn’t want to compete with those businesses.
Forget your worries
Sabo wants to attract young business people and families, and he wants to give them a unique experience.
Everyone who comes in gets Mardi Gras beads because Sabo wants to help people celebrate.
“I want people to forget they are in Chattanooga, forget their worries,” he said.
The restaurant is located on Cummings Highway, across the street from Black Creek Community.
After church on Sunday, former U.S. Sen. Zach Wamp, R-Tennessee, brought his family to Meo Mio’s.
It’s across the street from his home, and he first visited the restaurant on New Year’s Eve, he said.
“It’s the buzz of Black Creek,” he said.
Wamp, who wore a string of Mardi Gras beads around his neck, said the food is “excellent” and the restaurant is clean with a special atmosphere.
He called it a “destination restaurant” and said that as long as Sabo gets the word out about his business, it should be a success.
“There’s nothing else in Chattanooga like this,” he said.
Updated @ 8:53 a.m. on 01/09/12 to correct a typographical error.