Doug Havron gives grilled cheese sandwich flips and behind-the-counter quips with equal skill.
After welcoming some hungry customers to Gabby’s Burgers & Fries on a recent Wednesday and being asked how the fast food world is faring, the good-natured Havron responded, “Just hanging around trying to keep the American economy going.”
Overhearing the clever retort, a local writer chuckled out loud, nearly choking on his delicious veggie burger and sweet potato fries.
Welcome to Gabby’s, Music City’s version of the legendary Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago.
Gabby’s (named for Havron’s talkative 3-year-old daughter Gabriella) has been open only since February. But the quirky burger joint, which operates from the south Nashville space vacated by iconic Southern diner Hap Townes, has achieved quick popularity and spurred fans to agree with the menu slogan: “Gabby’s: Worth Talking About!”
Located at 493 Humphreys St., and within a home-run blast of Greer Stadium, Gabby’s attracts corporate power brokers, blue-collar types, hipsters and salt-of-the-earth folk. All visit to heartily wolf down some mighty fine grub.
“I heard about it through a co-worker,” Heather Mathias, a first-time Gabby’s visitor, said while enjoying her meal. “It’s a little hidden jewel you would not even know is here.”
Havron is a local hero of sorts within Nashville’s restaurant community. The former owner of Berry Hill café Sam & Zoe’s and a veteran employee of many area chain restaurants, he has earned high marks for his work ethic and for treating his employees with respect and dignity. Patrons admire Havron for operating Gabby’s during lunchtime only, Mondays through Fridays, to have some time with wife Coreen, son Seamus and the little lady for whom his eatery is named.
By balancing work and family, Havron is “living the dream,” as he calls it.
“Yes, we are closed weekends and nights for quality of life,” said Havron, who grew tired of working so much that his family time suffered. “It is scary putting so much on lunch sales, and I am rolling the dice that it will work.”
To date, Havron said business is doing “very well,” but he acknowledges he has opened during a slumped economy. On a positive note, Gabby’s has the Hap Townes connection going for it.
“One day when I was planting the bushes, some couple came by looking for Hap Townes,” he recalled. “I said it had been closed for 15 years. They were sad and left. I realized then that I wanted to run a place that people would be looking for 15 years after it had closed.”
Havron has the chance to develop a burger-serving standard bearer, and he shows no signs of slipping on spilled mustard. Already, Havron has Gabby’s shining with both the wacky and the straight-forward. On the menu, he writes (regarding the joint’s preparing its burgers medium well), “Tell us if you need it well done, and we’ll burn that sucker for you.” In one windowsill sit seven books about hamburgers, including the George Motz classic Hamburger America: One Man’s Cross-Country Odyssey to Find the Best Burgers in the Nation.
The Gabby’s entrance is filled with celebrity photos, on which Havron has cleverly signed fake words of praise (the late actor Jimmy Stewart “writes” simply “What a wonderful burger.”)
“I thought it was a funny idea,” he said of the photos.
On a more serious tone, Havron offers uniformed women and men who earn their livings in the military, police and firefighting sectors a 20 percent discount.
“The discount is to show respect to those who keep us safe and just to say ‘thank you,’” he said.
Customers thank Havron and his dedicated team (most of whom followed him from Sam & Zoe’s) by ordering a variety of filling fare that includes burgers (of course), chili, grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, fries, sodas and teas. Unlike the aforementioned Billy Goat Tavern, Gabby’s serves no booze, likely a positive thing for a burly burger-eating man wanting to minimize a meal’s impact on his waist.
Prices are reasonable, with burgers ranging from $4.95 to $5.95 and each coming with a side.
Havron said he arrives no later than 7 each morning to prep for the day. From 10:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., Nashville’s burger fans visit. Clean-up time follows, with Havron staying until about 4 p.m., placing food orders and covering maintenance and paperwork chores.
“I go home, kiss the kids and play for a few minutes — then cook dinner,” he said. “Then we do baths, I read a few books to Gabriella and it’s soon time to go to bed at 9 o’clock.”
It’s a long day, but much more manageable than the grinding schedule he once kept.
“When Seamus came along, my wife began to ask when I was going to participate in raising our children,” he said with a chuckle. “I was working 28 days out of 30, and I realized that my time management was not up to the task. I needed to change.”
Now Havron has a chance to both work hard and enjoy being a family man. The “living the dream” theme is seen on his menu and a T-shirt Gabby’s sells. In fact, Havron sports the shirt every day while toiling in the fry pit.
“If you do not receive great food, great service and, after paying your bill you don’t feel like you got a great deal, my dream will fail,” he writes on the menu. “Please let me know what I can do to keep living my dream.”
Gabby’s Burgers & Fries
493 Humphreys St.
10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday