The Untold Truth Of O'Charley's

If you live in the Southern United States or in the Midwest, there's a good chance you're familiar with O'Charley's Restaurant & Bar (and you know it typically just goes by O'Charley's). The casual sit-down chain started in Nashville, and there are now locations in 17 states serving affordable American food like burgers, chicken, and fish. And, aside from the main entrees, people know it for its yeast rolls and award-winning pie.

Though the chain has hit a bit of a rough patch in recent years, it's still drawing people in. O'Charley's still has its reputation as a strong supporter of military veterans and consistent food. O'Charley's once sat high on a pedestal as a Forbes top 200 Best Small Companies in America, and it lives on today despite competition and changing tastes.

This is what you need to know about O'Charley's before stopping by for your next visit, from its start by a charismatic serial entrepreneur to the many changes to ownership and menu options.

It took 13 years for O'Charley's to become a chain

Charles Watkins opened the first O'Charley's in 1971 near Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, according to the Nashville Post. It was also the only O'Charley's for more than a decade. Watkins sold the solitary restaurant in 1984 to David Wachtel, and things quickly started to change from there.

Wachtel was previously the president and CEO of Shoney's, which is another Nashville-based restaurant chain. He quickly expanded O'Charley's with a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, and one in Huntsville, Alabama, according to Funding Universe. The first 12 O'Charley's locations were opened by 1987, each with 180 seats. All of the restaurants were within 200 miles of each other in the Southeast. The company went public in 1990 to help fund even further expansion, and by the time that Wachtel stepped down in 1993, he had built O'Charley's into a 45-location chain. It kept growing, reaching 100 locations by 1998.

All of the growth turned O'Charley's into a widespread, well-known, and affordable casual restaurant chain. Still, the initial regional focus remained a part of O'Charley's DNA, and today, the restaurant's locations are primarily found in the Southeast and Midwest.

The founder of O'Charley's also started a burger spot called Cheeseburger Charley's

After Watkins sold O'Charley's, he started another restaurant that played off of his name: Cheeseburger Charley's. Watkins opened the burger spot with his son (also named Charles Watkins) in 1988, according to Nation's Restaurant News. This probably shouldn't come as a surprise since Watkins had already started a string of restaurants after leaving the Marines in 1963, including a Shakey's Pizza, a spot called Al Hirt's Sandwich Saloon, and, of course, O'Charley's.

Cheeseburger Charley's, which has since shut down, was a small chain centered around Nashville. It was known for diet-conscious fast food burgers for a reasonable price, according to Nashville Scene. The atmosphere was "a very streamlined diner/soda shop of the '60s," defined by a white, black, and chrome color scheme and plenty of memorabilia on the walls.

In terms of food, there was just about every type of burger you could imagine. One Yelp reviewer was impressed by how there was a traditional beef option as well as a veggie option right alongside salmon, buffalo, chicken, and turkey burgers.

O'Charley's was once known for its expansive, all-encompassing menu

The Cheesecake Factory is often the butt of jokes about overly large menus with far too many options. One look at how massive the menus are, and it's easy to see why people jokingly compare it to novels, for example, or kid that the menu is "the same size as the Bible and has about the same cultural significance." But if you were to set foot in an O'Charley's in the early 1990s, you might have thought the same thing. Unlike the Cheesecake Factory, though, O'Charley's changed its tune on menus.

O'Charley's was struggling to make profits after it became a public company in 1990, according to Funding Universe. Executives analyzed the business and in 1991 made major changes — including to the all-encompassing menu that some compared to a tome the size of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. All of the options were simply too hard for the various kitchen staffs to execute consistently, so the company started to strike out options and created a new menu with around half of the original entree choices.

"We looked at what was selling and what wasn't, and dropped all the marginal items," then-senior vice president and chief operating officer Charles F. McWhorter said according to Funding Universe. That meant losing four appetizers, five hamburger and sandwich options, four steak and rib entrees, and certain soups and salads.

O'Charley's has a history of racial discrimination

In 1994, Wachtel, the man who had rapidly turned O'Charley's into a recognizable chain, resigned to focus on other business obligations. Shortly after that same year, four former employees sued the company for racial discrimination in the Middle District of Tennessee federal courthouse. The lawsuit claimed discrimination agains African Americans in hiring, work assignments, and promotions in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

One of the company's leaders who followed after Wachtel, president and chief financial operator Gregory L. Burns, said the suit was "without merit and the company intends to defend it vigorously," according to Funding Universe. In 1995, the suit became a class action lawsuit, which meant whatever settlement or ruling would apply to other employees and former employees who experienced discrimination from March 31, 1992, or later.

O'Charley's settled the lawsuit in 1996 and ended up paying $6.2 million through a mix of direct payments and stocks to employees and former employees. "We agreed to this settlement because of the significant distraction the lawsuit has had on management and the uncertainty it has caused in the marketplace," Burns said according to Funding Universe.

O'Charley's yeast rolls have a cult following

Every meal at O'Charley's comes with a complimentary basket of the chain's famous yeast rolls. The dinner rolls are "unsliceably soft," as O'Charley's likes to put it, and they've found more than a few fans.

On the Bakers Laboratory forum, one member put a call out for help as they were "trying so hard to find a delicious, sweet dinner roll like they serve at O'Charley's." The recipe they settled on as the closest to the original involves whole milk, sugar, dry active yeast, egg, butter, flour, and salt. has thrown its hat into the ring with a similar recipe, as did the blog Big Oven. In short, there are a lot of people who are fans of the yeast rolls, many people who have attempted to make copycat recipes, and still others who are on the hunt for that perfect recipe.

The sweetness of the rolls is one of the main draws for some. "The texture is wonderful and that sweet yeasty flavor is only heightened by the honey butter that they give you," someone looking for the recipe described on The Fresh Loaf. They added that "the rolls are very sweet, almost dessert like. I suppose they brush them with the honey butter after they come out of the oven instead of actually incorporating a large amount of sugar in the dough."

O'Charley's has a long history of supporting veterans

O'Charley's is a longtime supporter of foundations that benefit America's veterans, and the chain has a 10 percent veteran discount offered throughout the year.

One big annual contribution O'Charley's makes to veterans is the "Give $5, Get $5" fundraiser. It benefits The Folded Flag Foundation, a non-profit that gives educational scholarships and grants to the families of military members who have died. For the promotion, O'Charley's gives every guest who donates $5 on their check gets a $5 O'Charley's voucher. The promotion raised more than $130,000 for The Folded Flag Foundation in 2017, according to a press release. The money was given to military families.

"Every year, we are humbled by the amount of support we receive from our guests and we expect this year will be no different," Craig Barber, O'Charley's CEO, said in a press release about the 2020 event. "Supporting the families of our country's fallen heroes is something that is a privilege and an important element of our brand."

It's a meaningful contribution for The Folded Flag Foundation.

"Our long-standing relationship with O'Charley's is so vital to our overall mission," Kim Frank, the president of The Folded Flag Foundation, said in the press release. "This annual fundraiser is just one way they help us maximize our impact for these deserving families.

One of the top owners of O'Charley's also owns the Las Vegas Knights hockey team

O'Charley's is majority owned by Cannae Holdings, which is an investment holding company based out of Las Vegas. Bill Foley is the chairman of Cannae Holdings, making him one of the people in charge of O'Charley's, and he's also the owner of the Las Vegas Golden Knights.

The connection occasionally comes up when O'Charley's higher ups talk about the restaurant chain.

"We talked about where the puck is going and then we had to adapt to where might the puck then bounce," Craig Barber, CEO of O'Charley's, told FSR when describing the business. "It if deflects off a stick, it deflects off a skate, it deflects off a body, what does that mean? So for us as a management team, it really became trying to get to where we needed to be, but also adapting to where things would adjust."

Foley is a busy guy with a long career bio. He's a graduate of West Point and served in the U.S. Air Force, and he is also a trustee on the board of The Folded Flag Foundation (the same one O'Charley's supports through yearly promotions).

O'Charley's gets its award-winning pies from Legendary Baking

O'Charley's is known for its award-winning pies. All of those pies come from Legendary Baking ... and they are seriously legendary.

"They make all of our pies, and the fruit pies are hand-filled," former O'Charley's president Mickey Mills told the Tennessean in 2014. "We bake them fresh every day, and we whip up fresh whipped cream for them."

One of the biggest events that pushed O'Charley's pies into stardom is when Mills started "Free Pie Wednesday," which offered a free slice of pie with the purchase of an entree every week. In 2020, O'Charley's doubled down on free pie and started to also offer a whole free pie with any family meal purchase, according to a press release.

Today, Legendary Baking is based out of Denver, Colorado, and it makes a number of different pies, galettes, brownies, cakes, cobblers, and cookies. The bakery has won more than 750 Blue Ribbons at the American Pie Council's National Pie Championships, according to the company. Legendary Baking's holding company, American Blue Ribbon Holdings, notes that Legendary Baking makes more than 25 million pies every year. It's a good thing, too, if O'Charley's plans to continue giving away its famous pies.

O'Charley's was once considered a top 200 small business in America

In 2000, just under three decades after the first O'Charley's opened, the casual dining chain made it onto the Forbes ranking of 200 Best Small Companies in America. O'Charley's landed at number 180 in its first appearance, according to a press release.

"We're very pleased to be among the successful companies that are included in this list," then-chairman and CEO Gregory Burns said in the press release. "Our ability to consistently produce record growth in revenues, earnings and comparable store sales is a powerful statement of the performance of our people, the level of service we provide and the strength of the O'Charley's concept."

To qualify for the ranking, businesses had to meet a variety of conditions. The next year, O'Charley's made the list again. Only, in 2001, the company had moved up to number 163. Proving that the early 2000s were a great time to be on the leadership board at O'Charley's, the company claimed a spot one more time on the Forbes 200 Best Small Companies in America list in 2002 at number 171.

O'Charley's has been on the decline for the past couple of years

Much has changed since those heady years in the early 2000s when O'Charley's was racking up awards and rapidly expanding. Since 2016, dozens of O'Charley's restaurants have been rapidly closing, with eight going under in June 2019. While management and leadership hasn't come out and directly pinned the blame on one factor for the closings, there are a number of potential reasons.

Bar and grill chains have struggled as a whole, for one, as people get tired of the concept. Janet Lowder, the president of the consulting firm Restaurant Management Services, told the Los Angeles Times that the casual bar and grill chain is a concept "that needs to have some new strategies" to remain relevant. There are many chains in the category after all, from Ruby Tuesdays to Applebee's and everything in between — not to mention all of the other restaurant choices out there.

Another struggle is that malls have been on the decline over the past decade, and some O'Charley's locations in the South relied on the foot traffic the malls drew.

"Back when it was booming, we were booming," Shalee Horton, who worked at an O'Charley's next to Macon Mall in Georgia for nearly 20 years, told the Macon Telegraph. "The mall started to decline and you know, so did we."

Food critics and online reviewers are not fans of O'Charley's

Another issue O'Charley's has had to deal with over the years: food critics and online reviewers who are, well, less than generous. A 2013 story in Nashville Scene said "sorry Charley," and that even after a massive remodeling and menu revamp, "it's the same old O'Charley's" (and not in a good way). The reviewer found the chicken fingers just fine, but his wife's "Louisiana sirloin" only edible for a couple of bites while the sides were too salty to eat. The final verdict: "Anyone who ordered stand-alone chicken got a decent meal, while everybody else left copious amounts uneaten."

A year earlier, Serious Eats had a similarly less-than-stellar review. It started out with the acknowledgment that the "most popular dish is the basket of free rolls," with "cuisine that never promises to be anything more than serviceable." The burgers were "shrunken pucks of beef" and "positively dreadful." Still, the writer found that the chicken fingers over performed, similar to the experience of the writer for the Nashville Scene

It's not just professional reviewers who have gripes, either. On YouTube, you don't have to search too hard to find critiques on everything from the fish to the tough meats.

O'Charley's once tried to make all of its waiters semi-sommeliers

In an effort to make O'Charley's known for its wine pairings just as much as the rest of its menu, the chain rolled out an app that put a little bit of sommelier knowledge in every waiter's hand in 2004. The Wine Finder was a piece of cardboard that matched entrees and appetizers with a wine recommendation based on brand and tasting notes.

"The whole purpose behind this was to be more education-oriented," Colleen Brennan, beverage manager at O'Charley's at the time, told Restaurant Business. "With the thought, of course, that if your servers are more educated and armed with some more tools, then the sales will follow."

At the time, wine was only 1 percent of alcohol sales, which needed a boost. It wasn't the only time leadership looked to innovate the bar side of the business, either. In 2018, O'Charley's created a bartender certification program and a cocktail competition to increase what their bartenders could do.

Craig Barber, the president of O'Charley's and CEO of American Blue Ribbon Holdings, told Cheers at the time that "liquor, beer, and wine for us has not been as prominent as it should be" after alcohol sales dropped from 9.5 percent of sales in 2000 to 7.5 percent in 2017.

From wine to beer to cocktails, O'Charley's has tried hard over the years to put the "bar" back in O'Charley's Restaurant & Bar.