Lessons From the Nashville Restaurant Scene's Resident Boss Lady
With two full-service restaurants and one recently opened quick service pop-up window, it’s no wonder Sarah Gavigan is a self-proclaimed boss lady.
She cut her teeth in boss lady-ing in the Los Angeles music and entertainment industry. But when Gavigan and her family moved to Nashville in 2010, she went from working 80-hour weeks to staying at home with her then 5-year-old daughter. She was out of her element and missing LA’s diverse food scene. Gavigan sought to re-stoke her passion through food, specifically ramen.
“I missed ramen so desperately,” Gavigan said. “It was my place, my thing that I did when I was having a rough day and just needed something. I decided to challenge myself that I was going to make it.”
And with that Gavigan transformed from home cook to restaurateur. She not only made ramen to comfort herself—since 2013, Otaku has been serving up hot bowls of Tennessee Tonkatsu to Nashville diners, which is no small feat in itself. Gavigan says it’s tough for a lady in the boy’s club of ramen.
“I have a bunch of Japanese guys roll up … they tell me I have the best bowl of tonkatsu in the world,” she says. “Its’ a great exercise in understanding the relationship between people and food.”
But Gavigan didn’t stop there.
Otaku was born inside POP, a pop-up restaurant space on the second floor of an otherwise nondescript two-story strip mall in East Nashville. By 2015, Otaku had grown to scale and moved to its brick-and-mortar location inside Nashville’s trendy mixed-use development The Gulch. Pop needed a new baby to incubate and Gavigan’s second concept was born, like Otaku, out of another longing for Los Angeles.
“I was missing that really vegetable-forward California style food and Latin food that is really very fresh and clean and vibrant,” she says.
Gavigan partnered with a chef who was coming out of Miami and brought Latin flavors to the table, and in May 2015 the Little Octopus pop-up began. By virtue of the pop-up space, Little Octopus was given its own, less traditional path to scale.
“As my GM who came from New York said, it was like a popsicle stand,” Gavigan says. “You’re kind of forgiven for a myriad of sins when you’re in a pop-up space. We were able to run it in a way that you would never run a restaurant.”
When it came time to move Little Octopus to a new location, Gavigan says it was a dangerous move. But where is reward without the risk? In February of 2017, Little Octopus joined its sister Otaku in The Gulch, perhaps a little sooner than it was ready.
“The food was built around this very humble space (POP), and now we are no longer in a humble space,” Gavigan says. “We’re still kind of looking for the true identity of this brand and what it is. It definitely has not had the kind of natural roll out that Otaku did. It doesn’t mean that it won’t—it just means that the incubation is happening in real time.”
While Little Octopus is getting its footing with its menu and customer base, Gavigan is using the restaurant's highly decorated and notably Instagrammable space to make another kind of statement. Little Octopus launched its lunch service with a ladies’ lunch that brought women from throughout the city together in a ticketed event with proceeds going toward creating a program for women business owners in Nashville.
“It was so lovely,” Gavigan says. “It’s always wonderful when you can get different generations into a room, I think that’s important in today’s day in age more than ever. Young people really need to be around women who have done it, who have been through it, and that are in another time in their lives. That was really what inspired us and we’re doing it again this year.”
Gavigan is also speaking at the FAB Workshop in Charleston in June, a hospitality workshop for women. The "Me Too" era is a tough time for women in general, she says, as well as in the restaurant industry.
“It’s tough, it’s a really intense time for women,” Gavigan says. “Now the conversation is the norm. What comes next, I have no idea. I fear the underbelly of it. That’s what I’m trying to teach my daughter and other women—it’s complex. The best thing you can do is have compassion and look at it multiple different ways. There is no one answer.”