Martha Boggs is busy today.
This is not hyperbole or random praise. Just pick a day, any day; Martha Boggs is busy.
The owner and manager of two successful restaurants on South Gay Street – or SoGay, as she has dubbed it – Boggs works 12 hours a day, six days a week keeping the Bistro at the Bijou and Dazzo’s Pizza on track (sometimes longer hours than that, when big shows are in town). The Bistro takes up most of her time, and she’s joined in the enterprise by her husband, David Patterson, who tends the two-acre garden at their Holston Hills home that supplies the restaurant with the fresh, seasonal vegetables for which the Bistro has become known. She says the topography of the place makes it perfect for growing vegetables, and since it used to be a worm farm, the soil is great, too.
She was doing farm-to-table before anybody thought up the name.
“I’ve never had a chef bring in a menu. I’ve just stayed with food I grew up with that I can cook,” Boggs said. “I do all the menu development and I’m always looking for something unique. I hate doing what everyone else is doing.
“I’ve been putting hot sauce on my fried chicken for 30 years, and never called it hot chicken.”
Boggs enrolled in the University of Tennessee and came to Knoxville straight out of Copper Basin High School in Ducktown, where the landscape had been denuded by a century of copper smelting. Her family lived down by the acid plant and they shopped at the company store. Everybody worked for Tennessee Copper Company.
“It’s on the state line, and was the site of the first federal environmental lawsuit, in 1904,” Boggs said. “Georgia sued, and the court ruled that what one state does for commerce cannot affect the neighboring states, so the government made them clean up their mess. They found it was far more profitable to sell the sulfuric acid (a byproduct of the process).”
One of six children, she got her gardening chops from weekends with her grandparents, who had a subsistence farm across the state line in Wolf Creek, North Carolina. They raised, canned and preserved most of what they ate, and she started cooking at an early age.
“You had no option. They barely had TV dinners back then.”
Her family didn’t have a lot of money, but Pell grants provided substantial tuition help in those days, and Boggs worked her way through school with jobs in campus eateries – the UT cafeteria and Smokey’s (both in the student center), then Stephanos Pizza on The Strip.
Her degree is in psychology, but she has another description of her college career:
“I majored in Getting Out of College Quick as I Can.”
She graduated in 1986 and started working in bars in the UT area, ending up at the Old College Inn, where she started waiting tables, but expanded her job into the kitchen.
“We always had a soup of the day, but they just opened up a can. I said, ‘I can do better than that.”
Pretty soon she was cooking up chicken and dumplings, vegetable beef soup, chili, and white beans with ham – the kind of simple, tasty food she’d grown up on. Eventually she became general manager.
She got a job at the Bijou in 1993, when it was still owned by Pete Claussen.
“We had 10-cent chicken wings and dollar beer and lost money on every sale,” Boggs said, breaking into a big grin. “Our motto was ‘We lose money on every sale, but we make up for it in volume.’”
She stayed on after Claussen sold it to some guys she’d known in college. But they didn’t get along with the Bijou management, and after the big bust of 2008, they wanted out.
“Nobody wanted a restaurant downtown in 2009,” she said. “So I bought it. I figured I’d been around a long time and knew I could do it.”
In 2011, the owner of Dazzo’s Pizzeria across the street wanted to sell his restaurant and get back to New York. So Boggs bought it.
“He just wanted to be gone, and I got a bargain on that one, too,” she said. “It doesn’t need a lot. It uses his recipes and the menus are the same all the time.”
So now Boggs has about 10 employees at Dazzo’s and 24 at the Bistro.
“We’re a mom and pop business, and I’m the mom,” she said.
She didn’t go to culinary school, but she spends a lot of time studying food blogs and creates unique, varied and veggie-centric menus that keep her downtown regulars coming back.
She made national headlines in 2012 when she kicked controversial former state Sen. Stacey Campfield out of the Bistro one Saturday after he’d made some highly-publicized, inflammatory and false pronouncements about AIDS.
“I actually try to stay away from political controversy, but I’ve got a big mouth and I sometimes I can’t stay silent. Somebody needed to tell him off. Lying about how people get AIDS was going too far. It felt really personal. But now, everybody just gets up and lies whenever they want to.”
Politics and frustrations aside, Boggs feels fortunate to be where she is. She loves the old building with the solid mahogany bar back and the oil painting of Miz Lil, the voluptuous nude. Her front window gives her a view on the goings on Gay Street.
“I just wanted to come down and make a living,” she said. “I mean to keep it as a community gathering place, because that’s what it’s been since 1816. I’m really fortunate to have found a place in the community.”
But if she can be known for one single thing, she says it’s an easy choice:
“The only thing I’ve ever aspired to be is a good cook.”