The relentless Clayton Thompson and his family members celebrate 20 years in business, look forward to a strong future
By Hannah Wallace
Before he was a Siesta Key restaurateur, Clayton Thompson was a Sarasota cow.
“I’ve been like that all my life,” the owner of Clayton’s Siesta Grille said this fall, just shy of the restaurant’s 20th anniversary. “I’ve done some things you don’t want to do.”
At 14, for instance, he worked as a busboy at Mr. Steak on South Tamiami Trail, across from The Landings. “When business was slow the owner would send me out into the median on (U.S.) 41 wearing a cow suit with a large cow head,” Thompson remembered. “He had one of the girls chase me around with a bullwhip.”
Despite his embarrassment at the time, the teenage Thompson appreciated the effectiveness of his beef-themed guerilla marketing.
Nowadays, you’re much more likely to see Thompson out of costume, but still hard at work. “You’re going to find me out in the parking lot trimming the bushes, picking up cigarette butts, being respectful to our neighbors,” he said. “I’m relentless. I get up every single day thinking, ‘How can I make some money today? What can I go do to help at the restaurant?’”
Clayton’s began in 2004 as a “hobby” of sorts for Thompson and his wife, Diane. By that point, he’d been working in real estate appraisals for more than 30 years. He just wanted to do something different. And he’d been gravitating toward the restaurant industry since childhood.
“I had a rough upbringing from the time I was 12,” he said. “I found working at restaurants, I was fed, I always got a meal. And I got to hang out with really cool people.”
Located just off the south bridge on Old Stickney Point Road, Thompson’s restaurant began its life as a Mattison’s, part of the local family of restaurants from Sarasota chef Paul Mattison. “But we soon realized the margins were so tight that we couldn’t pay someone for their name,” Thompson said.
Newly redubbed Clayton’s in 2005, the restaurant’s business still seemed solid. “I thought we rocked coming out of the gate,” remembered Thompson, who was still operating several appraisal offices from Naples to Tampa at the time. “Business was good. I was having fun until my wife told me just how much our new hobby was costing us.”
Only then did Thompson go all-in, turning away from the appraisal industry altogether and taking over restaurant operations himself. And he hasn’t looked back in 20 years.
Thompson attributes his long-term success to a number of deliberate decisions that have kept the restaurant’s quality high and accounts in the black. His kitchen, for one thing, has always steered away from conveyor-belt mediocrity and toward reliance on skilled professionals.
“I think what makes Clayton’s click is the hiring of an executive chef and not depending on a kitchen manager,” he explained. “A kitchen manager just prepares the existing recipes. There’s no incentive for them to go and make specials. We said from day one that we would operate very closely to a scratch kitchen. We make our soups, sauces, desserts, have a fresh daily fish, and make our pizza dough.”
Clayton’s current executive chef, Mike Yoder, came to the restaurant in 2021 and created new menu items when he arrived. Like Clayton’s chefs before him, Yoder brings extensive culinary experience. He operates as a true executive chef, and he can adjust dishes and specials as needed — if there’s a shortage of a particular ingredient, for instance, or if something especially appealing happens to be available that day.
And if market prices go up, then Clayton’s may have to raise menu prices. What Thompson won’t do, he said, is cut quality. “I think a lot of restaurants make the mistake of trying to downgrade their food” to keep prices the same.
While Thompson is the namesake and the most visible part of Clayton’s — “the cow in the median,” if you will — he credits his whole family for the work they do to keep the restaurant, and Thompson himself, in good standing.
“Our daughter Shelby is our bookkeeper, a social media whiz, and just like her mother knows how to keep me in check. My son, Clayton, is a data analyst at one of those billion-dollar endowments and has recently been helping us to better understand the financials of the business,” Thompson said.
Their other daughter, Logan, worked for years in the restaurant before becoming “a world-famous hairstylist,” according to her father.
Diane Thompson continues to make sure that the couple’s “hobby” hasn’t gotten out of hand, financially or otherwise. “She has gracefully saved me on numerous occasions after I said the wrong thing,” said Thompson.
The result of being around for so long, especially on Siesta Key, is that Clayton’s has been able to rally during the good times and prepare to weather the bad. “We’ve been through storms: red tide, the oil spill, the economic downturn in 2008, the pandemic, now a downturn again, it’s kind of like the perfect storm,” he said. “We survive because we’re good stewards of our money when times are good.”
As Clayton’s prepares for the next 20 years, Thompson has a few things in mind for the future. First up: In 2024, he plans to give a portion of the ownership of Clayton’s to Mike Yoder, as well as to general manager Jacob Butler, as a reward for their service — and ostensibly to alleviate some of Thompson’s responsibilities.
“It was a three-year plan and part of my exit strategy to not be so hands on,” he said. Still, Thompson doesn’t seem to be slowing down. If anything, he’s just added more jobs to his list.
“In the past several years, I’ve become like the caretaker of the property while I’m still invested in managing the restaurant,” he said. “At 7 in the morning, I’m mopping the kitchen floor. Even if they did a good job [closing] the night before, I’m never satisfied. I’m a little bit of a clean freak. Today I was just cleaning the air intake. That’s a hard job. I do a lot of those jobs.”
Aspiring restaurateur teenagers can take note of this work ethic that Thompson learned from an early age. “If you can survive being a cow, you can do anything,” he said.