Restaurant pending for McMinnville outdoor outfitter

A group of kayakers is ready to take to the river.

MCMINNVILLE – In the beginning, it was just a simple side business.

When Mickey Heath, Michael Lockhart and Jimmy and Todd Barker first founded Smooth Rapids Outfitters in Warren County in 2012, they rented boats out of pickup trucks. Revenues tallied just $8,000.

Today, besides the kayak, canoe and tube rentals, Smooth Rapids also operates a campground, event space, retail shop – and soon – a restaurant on-site, which will morph the operation from seasonal outfit to year-round attraction.

“Each season we’ve been adding more and more, but the restaurant’s a pretty big undertaking,” Heath said. “We’re hoping it will be the staple of our business 12 months out of the year, and what we do during the summer months is just icing on the cake.”

McMinnville is an ideal location, Heath said, with “untapped resources,” over 50-60 miles of river. Smooth Rapids accesses Caney Fork tributaries the Barren Fork and Collins River. Each float promises “beautiful scenery.”

Mickey Heath and three others opened Smooth Rapids in 2012.

“It’s not going to be white water like the Ocoee, but it’s definitely something beginners can do,” Heath said. “People are starving for stuff to do in the summer, and the fact that they can get outdoors with their kids or get away, it’s just a good thing.”

The nearly 10-acre site, located at 245 Durham St., allows for camping – tents for now, but there’s demand for cabins, even RV slips, longer- term, Heath said. About 800 attend Reggae at Smooth Rapids, a concert and its largest event. And last year, they opened a newly constructed retail shop, and hired their first 10 or so employees. Opening a restaurant will require more: cooks, wait staff and the like. Heath said they’ll serve up a simple menu: burgers and “sports bar food,” wings, beer, fries, salads, wraps.

He expects the restaurant to be up and running by mid-April; Memorial Day at the latest.

“There’s tons of barbecue places, tons of Mexican restaurants in town. We wanted to try something a little different,” he said. “There’s all kinds of people coming off the water or [visiting] Cumberland Caverns looking for a place to eat. I don’t just want locals, I want people to drive in from all over, sit here on the river, and eat a meal.”

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Heath said they’ve cash flowed a lot of the expansion projects by forgoing salaries, instead, reinvesting back in the business. That’s helped spur growth. Last year, revenues were $100,000.

“It’s real easy to get in a hurry and jump into things before you’re ready, but the key to our success has been growing at an extremely slow pace,” Heath said. “We all have full time jobs. This is an investment for us, and you have to think long-term. People often ask, ‘what’s the difference between you and another outfitter service?’ Our location is definitely something we market heavily. Literally, people can drive up in their car or they can paddle up in their kayak, and that’s unique.”