How old wood, rusting tin and walls covered in dollar bills tell the story of Chattanooga’s Champy’s Restaurants

How old wood, rusting tin and walls covered in dollar bills tell the story of Chattanooga’s Champy’s Restaurants

Walking into Champy’s Restaurant is like entering a scene. Whichever direction you turn, bright colors flash before your eyes.

Vinyl tablecloths feature tropical prints. The Miller Lite sign adds a neon blue glow. Strand upon strand of Christmas lights illuminate the open ceiling.

It’s not just a bunch of bright colors. Literally everywhere you look, there are things to look at, tens of thousands of pieces in artistic disarray, and a hidden picture book coming to life.

The owners even say they discover something new every day and have helped decorate the place.

“This is the first time I’ve noticed it,” Seth Champion says during a tour of the East Ridge location, one of nine Champy’s restaurants he and his wife, Chrissie, own in Tennessee and Alabama.

He’s in the hallway, examining an upper shelf lined with a ceramic pig, three miniature gnomes, a plastic horse head and a Boston terrier figurine. Nearby are an American flag hanging from the rafters, various Christmas inflatables, and a carved, gray-painted wooden duck with a blue beak. Oh, and there’s a dollar bill taped to the back.

Those dollar bills are a thing at Champy’s. They’re everywhere—filling up any empty wall space and often covering up artwork and other memorabilia.

This customer ritual began at their original location, on ML King Boulevard in downtown Chattanooga, right after they opened in 2009, Crissy says.

“It started with a sisterhood that came after one of their dating parties,” she says. “About 50 of them signed dollar bills and put them on the wall. It grew from there.”

Since then, Seth says, it’s become a tradition that the first bills paid at every new restaurant are from the servers’ tips.

“The first dollar each server earns, they’re supposed to sign it and hang it on the wall for good luck,” he says.

picture Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/Chrissy and Seth Champion stand inside the East Ridge location of the world-famous Champie fried restaurant. They own eight other restaurants, with more in the works.

The Champions are Mississippi natives and have designed each restaurant to evoke the atmosphere of a Delta juke joint. In East Ridge, they added the Mississippi Hall of Fame: two corner walls lined with professionally painted portraits of Mississippi natives, from Britney Spears to Oprah Winfrey to Jim Henson, as well as a host of Mississippi blues musicians. Nearby, a photo of Elvis in his early years fills a window behind the bistro’s small stage. The party room has a wall-to-wall mural of B.B. King as the backdrop. A painting commissioned by R.L. Burnside graces the entrance.

For every piece of restaurant kitsch — a fabricated rooster in a brass birdcage, mass-produced clown paintings from the 1960s — there are classic counterparts. The jewel-toned pendant lamps illuminating the bar are all elegantly designed pieces in the Hollywood Regency style.

“They’re all vintage,” Seth says. “There are no copies, but finding the real ones is becoming more difficult.”

Despite the glitz and grandeur that define each restaurant’s interior space, there is little to dazzle on the outside. It’s all made of mismatched wood and rusty tin, except for the illuminated signs advertising the world-famous Champi Fried Chicken. East Ridge is one of two sites that has the rust-covered bones of an old tractor on the roof. It seems unlikely that there is a second story above this sprawling cottage.

picture Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/Seth Champion talks about the Mississippi Wall of Fame at Champy’s in East Ridge.

Chattanooga artist Terry Cannon, whose works represent a similar collage of found objects and coatings, has taken the lead in restaurant design and decor since 2016, working at the Lee Highway, East Ridge and Cleveland locations.

Most recently, he has been supplying wood, tin and accent decor for the next restaurant in Smyrna, Tennessee. This process is another tradition in restaurants. The original design began with a road trip that took Chrissy and Seth from Tennessee to Mississippi, where they recovered old wood and tin from old buildings, along with vintage decor from antique malls and thrift stores.

Cannon says he and the Champions were like-minded regarding Champy’s atmosphere, so their collaboration was easy.

“My approach is ‘more is more,’” Cannon says. “I like to cover every piece of wall. “When someone comes for the twentieth time, I want them to still see something they haven’t seen before.”

picture Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/Dollar bills adorn the walls at Champy’s in East Ridge.

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