By Josh Arntz
The Dickson Herald
Published Oct. 16, 2009
The Catfish Kitchen restaurant and its whale-sized catfish out front have been landmarks in Dickson County for over two decades.
“When people call for reservations they’ll say, ‘Aren’t you the place with the catfish up in the air?’” said owner and operator of the restaurant Don Hixson, about his three-dimensional catfish “sign.”
Hixson and his wife, Sharon, are 23-year co-owners of the restaurant, located on Highway 70 in Burns.
Hixson said the catfish, now suspended on top of the restaurant’s sign pole, used to sit on a trailer in front of the restaurant. However, pranksters would turn it over, forcing him to refurbish it about seven years ago and suspend it in the air.
“We have people from all over the country take pictures of it, and take them back home with them,” he said. “I think it’s been good for our business.”
The giant catfish – and the regular, edible kind – quickly drew a lot of attention, and patrons.
Despite trying economic times, the Hixson’s have continued serving their signature “hot and spicy” catfish and quail, serving around 150 people on weeknights and between 250 and 350 on the weekends.
“We’ll eat here twice a month or more,” said Rick Blankenship of Dickson, who was dining with his wife, Lisa, daughter, Abby and her friend, Carlee Bell. “We like the spicy catfish. This is pretty much the only place we eat fish.”
Still, the restaurant’s business has decreased recently.
“We’ve suffered about a 10 to 15 percent loss in business (during the recession), which actually started probably two years ago this coming December for us,” Hixson said.
“You just have to stay on top of everything to make everything work – taking care of your business, overseeing everything that happens and staying on top of your food costs and your labor costs, and just operating your business on the bare-bones essentials when you get into a situation like this.”
Hixson said he and Sharon attended a food show about 15 years ago where they demonstrated some quail dishes.
“We thought that would be a good item to maybe boost sales a couple days during the week, and thinking it would probably last six months to a year and then burn out on us,” Hixson said. “But, it’s been successful enough that we’ve continued it all this period of time.”
Owner and cook
Hixson oversees everything in the kitchen, where he has separate fryers for the hush puppies, french fries, seafood and catfish. Doing so, he said, keeps the food tastes from mixing.
“I see to it that everything going out of the kitchen is something I would eat myself,” Hixson said.
Sharon oversees the front end of the restaurant, making sure everyone is seated and has their orders placed. The 13-person staff does everything else.
“Don and Sharon are really friendly,” Blankenship said. “He always shakes my hand and stops by the table to ask how we are doing.”
Hixson, who grew up in Paris, Tenn., first became interested in purchasing the restaurant while he was selling food from Kesterson Food Co., Inc. in Linden, to Nena Campbell at the Catfish Kitchen. He had worked in the restaurant industry from 1967 until 1977, and operated five establishments in Paris, Martin and Dyersburg from 1974 to 1977.
A divorce forced him to liquidate what he had, and he relocated to Memphis and began working for Colonial Baking Co., where he remained for about seven years.
He then met Sharon, who lived in Perry County. Hixson then moved to Linden and began working for his longtime friends, Danny and Tommy Kesterson, who owned Kesterson Food Co.
The Hixson’s purchased the Catfish Kitchen on Oct. 29, 1986, and moved to Dickson in the summer of 1987 to run the venture full time.
“Having been in the restaurant business before, it’s something I’ve always enjoyed,” Hixson said. “We’ve been here 23 years and I never dread coming to work because I enjoy what I do. It’s something I wanted to do from the time I got out (of the industry) in 1977, but just hadn’t found the right opportunity.”
According to Hixson, George Jerles, who owned the Catfish House in Clarksville, founded the Catfish Kitchen at its current location in 1971.
“The land was just a hole, with a picnic area right off the road,” recalled Don. “He named it Catfish Kitchen and it’s been that ever since.
What: Catfish Kitchen
When: Tuesday-Saturday, 4-9 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
Where: 3069 Hwy. 70 E. in Burns
Info: Specializes in all-you-can-eat catfish (farm-raised in Mississippi), quail (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) and sirloin steak on Thursdays.