When I sat down with Mike Garratt ’98 for our interview and offered him a glass of water, he respectfully declined, pointing to the sweet tea in his hands. The words, “Soon to be famous” were enscribed above the Layne’s Chicken Fingers logo on his Styrofoam cup. An hour later, after learning more about the restaurant that has become so ingrained in Aggie lore and tradition, I left thinking that it might be time to strike “soon to be” from the cup’s design.
Garratt has been part of the Layne’s Chicken success story since the beginning. When Mike Layne founded the restaurant in 1994, Garratt was a regular customer. “I was mowing lawns and working construction for my dad on a building behind Layne’s,” he shared. “I probably ate there three times a week.” During one of his frequent visits, Garratt noticed Layne’s flowerbeds were overgrown and voluntarily tended to them. The act caught Layne’s attention, and he offered the young loyalist a job on the spot.
A College Station Classic
While earning his agricultural systems management degree from Texas A&M University, Garratt began working as a cook, eventually moving up to managing the restaurant. In 1997, he bought in and became an official partner but was at a crossroads after graduation. “I told Layne that I either wanted to buy him out of his portion, or I needed to leave and get a real job.” Garratt became the sole owner in November 1999.
Although he’s introduced new business practices and menu items over the years (coleslaw was the precursor to today’s potato salad), Garratt chose to keep the Layne’s name and character of the original Walton Drive location intact. Its maroon-and-white-checkered floor, mismatched booths and famous ticket wall—covered with artwork and messages from satisfied customers—lend a quirkiness that the company has embraced as part of its brand. And the food remains a comforting staple, especially the irresistible sauce. “Not even our employees know the exact ingredients,” he said.
Two new Layne’s locations opened in College Station in 2006 and 2015, but when it came to spreading the secret sauce outside Aggieland, Garratt was initially hesitant. “I’d been approached many times throughout the years to franchise Layne’s, and I always said no. Then these guys called me, and I don’t know what it was about them, but I liked what they had to say.”
Maybe it was less what they said, and more about who they were: a College Station native and his Wisconsin business partner who shared Garratt’s love for Layne’s Chicken. Matthew O’Reilly and Garrett Reed, who attended high school with Garratt, convinced him to lay the groundwork for franchising. Unsurprisingly, the first franchisee was an Aggie, and the first location outside College Station opened in Houston in 2021. “Aggies have a unique loyalty to our brand because there’s a shared value system,” Garratt explained. “The family-friendly atmosphere of Layne’s reflects the tight-knit community that Aggies are known for.”
Fried Chicken Following
That loyalty remains strong as Layne’s continues to expand outside Texas. More than 10 new locations, including some in West Virginia and Wisconsin, are in the works. At every location’s grand opening, there’s one constant: a lot of Aggie Rings. “We see a ton of former students come out,” Garratt said. “They loved us from the beginning in Aggieland, and they support our new restaurants just like the original. They’re helping us take this special Aggie tradition beyond College Station.”
In these new Layne’s locations, there’s no shortage of tribute to the restaurant’s roots, from the number 12 on T-shirt designs to signature maroon-and-white branding. The symbiotic relationship between Aggies and Layne’s is undeniable, and thanks to this support, former students can soon look forward to their favorite chicken order wherever life takes them after graduation.
As for me, I’ll take the chicken finger basket with extra sauce, fries, potato salad, Texas toast and a taste of Aggieland any day, anywhere in America.