Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
“I’m a working owner and I love it,” Eddie Chatman says as he takes a seat at one of the red-checkered tables in the small Eastside restaurant that bears his name. He’s wearing a black ball cap and full-length disposable apron, and gestures as ardently as a preacher when he talks.
“This is the greatest story … ,” Chatman begins in answer to almost every question, glancing over at the counter and kitchen only when a customer enters. In the space between the lunch and dinner rush, the door still opens every few minutes. A young woman behind the counter gives a friendly smile and takes the order. Chatman is pleased.
As he finishes one of his many stories, there are words of wisdom at the end, and if you’re lucky, it comes with a hot, fried riblet on the side.
Chatman’s entrepreneurial story begins at a rival chicken restaurant chain near the home where he grew up. It's where he earned the nickname “One Time,” because of his ability to pick up skills so quickly, and met the man who inspired his life’s work.
“Barney told me, ‘Whenever I hire someone, it means I want you to work for me. You have 28 days to show me I need you to work for me,’” Chatman said. It’s a refrain he repeats to his new hires today.
After graduating from Highlands High School in 1976, Chatman rose through the ranks of management until there was nowhere else to go but to the chain’s restaurants in Dallas. There, he turned failing stores into highly successful ones and earned his way into the Million Dollar Club, the youngest manager ever to do so at the time. But award plaques didn’t translate to a bigger paycheck, so Chatman jumped to a different chain and soon became an owner himself.
“Then it was time for me to come home – my mom was sick,” Chatman said. His single mother urged him to keep up his grades while working during high school. Though she didn’t live to see his name on the restaurant he now runs, her wisdom is present.
“I almost changed my mind and went on to Houston,” Chatman said. “But I saw so much in our community that needed change, [so] I decided to stay.
“Our kids get in trouble. Our kids go from one party to another. Sometimes their parents are at the same party. It’s amazing how far we fall short. Our children do not see enough successful people in front of them. We lack mentors.”
With that vision, he opened the W.W. White Road restaurant in 2002 and later another in Universal City, where the building owner leased Chatman the site for just $1 a year.
“When I asked him why, he just said, ‘It’s something about you,’” Chatman explained. That store later closed due to road work that hurt his business.
At the original restaurant, a former Captain D’s, Chatman marinates the chicken for 21 hours before frying it up. Catfish, gizzards, and hot wings are also on the menu, and he offers a two-piece dark chicken special every Tuesday for $1.99. Chatman said he was the first in town to offer a 99-cent special that drew lines of people out the door and forced his competitors to do the same, until chicken prices increased.
Mirinda Coleman stops in a couple times a month. "My husband Erik Coleman, head basketball coach at Sam Houston High School, grew up on the Eastside," she said. "He is the one who introduced me to Chatman's. I fell in love with their lemon pepper chicken."
Chatman currently has 12 employees in the kitchen, and he says he pays them well enough so they don’t have to work more than one job. But he requires them to have passing grades, a diploma, or be working toward a GED certificate. Students who graduate earn a $100 bonus.
“They have to show me their grades,” Chatman said. “If they are flunking, I take them off the work schedule or put them on weekends only. If they are messing up at home, I take them off the schedule so they can remember their place.”
So when you ask this business owner how well his restaurant is doing, he answers not with revenues or volumes, but with a story.
There’s the one about a young girl who beat the odds to graduate from high school, and then went on to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. And another about a teenage girl caught up in an abusive relationship.
“She came in one day with her face all beat up and begged me not to put her at the front counter,” Chatman said. “I told her ‘no’ and the first customer came in and was horrified by the bruises on her face. She came running to the back and asked me why I was doing that to her.”
He explained to her that the customer was shocked because abuse isn’t normal, and that he would change her work schedule to give her time to heal — but only if she brought him a copy of a police report. She did and the boyfriend was arrested, Chatman said.
There was the time one of his employees called in to say he couldn’t work that day because he had been using drugs. “I let him go and in three months he came back,” Chatman said. “I told him to give me six months of the best you got, and after that, I told him to go fill out job applications.”
Chatman gave the young man a good recommendation, and today, he is working at HOLT CAT and raising a family. He stops by the restaurant and cuts the grass from time to time. “He introduces me as his dad,” Chatman said.
San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE) recently recognized Chatman as 2017 Best Business Role Model, because “he’s a great boss,” SAGE CEO Jackie Gorman said. “He encourages his employees to take the next step – to go to school, to do whatever they need to do to do better. So people are really loyal to him. And his chicken is really good, and those corn fritters are addictive.”
“This is my joy,” said Chatman, opening his arms as if to embrace the restaurant, then placing his hands on his heart. It’s a joy that has less to do with the four walls of his establishment, his secret-recipe fried chicken, or fish-breading mix, and more with thriving in the face of competitors less than a mile up the road.
The fact that he sells 350 pounds of chicken in a day isn’t the measure of this man’s success. The fact that he was once offered a lump-sum buyout for the Chatman’s name and concept isn’t where he finds self-worth.
“I change people’s lives and they don’t even know it,” he said. “But I do it for me, not them. It’s what gives me peace.”
The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, and Chatman can be found there most of those days. But Chatman’s Chicken opens late on Sundays, he said, “so everyone can go to church.”