Where Does T.G.I. Friday's Get All Those Ukuleles, Oars, Etc., It Hangs on Its Walls?
By Tim Carvell

(FORTUNE Magazine) – So you're sitting at a T.G.I. Friday's, eating potato skins and slurping down a frozen margarita. (Or maybe you're not. But let's say you are. Work with me, people.) You're polishing off the skins when you look up and notice an antique toy monkey staring at you. Your gaze drifts to the right, to an old-fashioned tennis racquet. And right above that is an ancient pennant for a triple-A baseball team. And then you start to wonder--Where does all this stuff come from?

Wonder no more: It all comes from Nashville. To be specific, a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in Nashville, where the Dallas-based chain stores all of the clutter (or "memorabilia," to use the company's term) that it affixes to the walls of its restaurants. About a quarter of the items--mainly photos--are made specifically for the restaurants, says Jim Bodamer, the chain's head of design, construction, and facilities; the remaining 75% are actual antiques, assembled by a team of freelance "pickers" who scour flea markets and going-out-of-business sales to find suitable oddities. "Most of them have been doing it for years," Bodamer says, "so they know where to look and they know what we're looking for.... Maybe some old department store is going out of business, and in their basement they may have 20 mannequins or something, you know? Things like that."

Bodamer says the chain deliberately aims for a hodgepodge. The idea, when Friday's began, was to make the restaurants look something like an English pub where items have slowly accumulated over decades. (The plan was also to make the eateries more inviting to women; the chain began in 1965, Bodamer explains, as an alternative to the shadowy bars and men's clubs of the day--a place where women would feel safe meeting.) But with 62 restaurants opening last year, there's not time for the clutter to grow naturally; thus, when a new restaurant opens, Friday's ships 200 to 400 items from the Nashville warehouse, and dispatches an employee who specializes in arranging the items. "There's not a plan that tells him what goes where," Bodamer says. "It's just up to him." Over the next few days he screws every bit of decor onto the walls. (Friday's uses screws to ensure that a dartboard never drops into a customer's guacamole.) Each store has a different assortment of items, although all have an airplane propeller over the bar and a racing scull--the latter is included, Bodamer says, to remind the employees of teamwork, all oars pulling together, etc.

Not that FORTUNE has been able to confirm any of this firsthand; our requests to meet with the pickers, the hanger, and the warehouse owner were all shot down by T.G.I. Friday's, a subsidiary of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide. They won't even disclose the location of the warehouse. So if you should find yourself in Nashville, behind a truck laden with antique signs, traffic lights, and bowling trophies, follow it and let us know where it goes. Frankly, I don't want to die without first seeing T.G.I. Friday's secret cache of unicycles.

--Tim Carvell