The Nashville-born chef hasn’t followed the traditional path of a local restaurateur. After departing the city for 15 years, he came back with plans of opening a seafood restaurant—but instead wound up with a booming movie-catering business. It wasn’t until 2002, some 2,000 movies later, that he started opening restaurants, putting his stamp on the Nashville dining scene. Since, his empire has continued to grow, filling a niche in the Nashville market with more catering as well as buzzed-about concepts, even if they didn’t look like traditional restaurants.
His Acme concept, for example, housed in a multilevel historical feed building, creates four different experiences to appeal to different local diners—honky tonk, lounge, event space and rooftop patio. His latest venture, Southernaire Market, feels more like a bodega than a restaurant. The specialty grocery and butcher shop serves the up-and-coming SoBro neighborhood, and local publications have credited his TomKats Hospitality for expanding the area’s limited grocery options and filling a huge void for downtown residents.
“These experiences, along with knowing Nashville, its palate and understanding the value of hospitality, has set us apart,” Morales says. “Our culture is genuine, our menu’s accessible and our strategy of taking the pretense out of the dining experience creates a comfortable, inviting ambience like your home.” But it’s not just understanding the diners of his hometown that’s helped Morales be a local success; he’s focused on giving back to the community, starting with his own staff. He caters meals for disaster-relief situations and recently launched an unfiltered, self-funded radio station “that gives the local musicians (in many cases, our associates) a platform for music of any genre.”