Today, 35 years later, it’s clear the Williams had the right idea. From that small restaurant, Lizard’s Thicket has grown to 15 restaurants with 700 employees who serve more than 13,000 diners every day.
People around Columbia know The Lizard or The Thicket, as it’s often called, is the place to turn when you need a hearty breakfast or a meat and three for lunch and dinner.
It’s the kind of place where the waitresses know the names of regular customers and what they’re going to order, and they may call to check on them if they don’t show when they’re supposed to.
It’s a regular stop for politicians passing through the Midlands, from former President Bill Clinton to almost every candidate for the Republican nomination in 2012.
The first Lizard’s Thicket opened on Broad River Road in a five-room house.
More women were working outside the home and didn’t always have time to prepare meals, said Bobby Williams, son of the founders and the chairman of the company. And the Thicket was easy on the family budget; in those days, a meat-and-three plate was $2.95, and tea was 35 cents.
But what exactly is a lizard’s thicket? Bobby Williams can’t say exactly, but he can tell how his father came up with the name.
“We lived in Birmingham, Alabama back in the ’60s. There was a joint in western Alabama called Lizard’s Thicket. My father had heard the name; he hadn’t been there, but he just thought it was a funny country name, and it was sort of a restaurant, a joint, I’d say.”
When Bob Williams moved to Columbia, he planned to open a restaurant and name it Anna’s Country Kitchen, after his wife. Bobby Williams said that when his father went to the phone company, he learned that name was taken.
“So he was stumped and he said just name it Lizard’s Thicket. I lived in Birmingham at the time and I still remember him calling me and saying he was going to name it Lizard’s Thicket, and I just thought to myself, ‘He has lost his mind.’”
Bobby Williams said his father was an idea man, but it was his mother who made everything work.
“He was a great thinker. He figured the whole thing out, but my mother was the backbone, as far as the recipes and the cooking, and she was a cheerleader.”
In 1978, the second location opened.
One thing that worked especially well for the Williams is buying restaurants that had been closed and converting them. Some of the present locations were once Shoney’s, Long John Silver’s or other restaurants. That meant lower startup costs.
Bobby Williams was 25 and living in Alabama but soon returned to Columbia to help run the family business.
Bob and Anna Williams’ seven children -- four sons and three daughters -- all worked in the restaurants in the early years, usually seven days a week. The four sons continue to do so.
“We were all forced to work in the business because we were trying to build the business up,” Williams said. “We all gave our children the opportunity to go to college and choose a career.”
Still, three of the next generation – two of Williams’ sons and a niece, Sara Krisnow – work in the business.
Much has changed over 35 years, Williams said.
“The customers are more sophisticated and more demanding,” he said. There are more requests for meal choices to avoid food allergies or for gluten-free or low-carb diets.
One thing hasn’t changed: Fried chicken remains the top choice of Lizard’s Thicket diners.
“We skin our chicken,” Williams said. “We’ve probably thrown away a million dollars worth of chicken skin over 35 years. It’s healthier. That’s the way my mother did it, and that’s the way we continue to do it.”
Also popular are macaroni and cheese (“Macaroni and cheese is a vegetable with us.”), green beans and mashed potatoes.
In addition to the delicious country food, it’s the employees at Lizard’s Thicket who keep customers coming back.
Often customers have a favorite server that they see regularly, some two or three times a day, seven days a week.
The servers don’t even have to give them menus, Williams said.
“They know what they’re going to eat when they come in the door. They know exactly how they want their coffee. They know our product, a lot of times better than some of our employees do. They know what it’s supposed to taste like.”
To celebrate its 35th birthday, Lizard’s Thicket sold 35 cent tea and 99 cent desserts, held a coloring contest for children, and posted video tributes on Facebook to some longtime employees. Birthday coffee mugs were sold during January and February to raise funds for several charities, including The Cooperative Ministry in Columbia and Lighthouse Ministries in Florence.