This is the story of a young man who meets a grill and falls in love.
It was soon after Wayne Morton Jr. moved into a house of his own and laid eyes upon the machine, which immediately harkened back to his childhood.
“At the time, things were a little tight but I saw this grill, and it was on my mind. I couldn’t sleep, I wanted this grill,” Morton said.
Growing up in the tightly woven community of Promised Land in Greenwood County, Morton recalled upon seeing it the joy with which his mother cooked for the large family and its extended members.
“She was a cook. She cooked in the church and that sort of thing and when I was little I would see her cooking and didn’t know it was in me,” Morton said.
After buying a home, Morton noticed a small burner was left behind.
“I started fixing on it, fixing on it, inviting people over, and that’s kind of how it started,” Morton said. His food was a hit, and Morton, 48, thought about making a business out of it.
So he bought an industrial grill, hitched it to his truck and then, during a fateful stop for gas, found himself thrust into a new career – one that branches out Oct. 5 when Morton opens an Edgefield Street restaurant in Greenwood under his “L&W Catering” brand.
“I had just enough money to get that grill. I probably knew I wasn’t going to have enough money to eat that next week,” Morton said.
He pulled into a service station when a woman approached and asked whether he catered.
“I said, ‘yes ma’am, absolutely,’ and two weeks later I cooked for her and it paid for the grill,” Morton said. “That is how I got started.”
Fate? Ambition? Luck?
Whatever was behind that exchange, Morton – a U.S. Army veteran and 30-year Velux employee – realized the opportunity to pursue his passion was born.
Morton was a chemical specialist with the Greenwood-based 371st Chemical Company, called up as a reservist and spending 18 months in the Middle East during the Gulf War.
Morton’s father died on Christmas Day 2016. In his youth, Morton’s father would oversee hash cooks, and when he’s in the kitchen today, the dishes he creates are also tributes to his parents and large network of friends and relatives.
“I have a huge support team,” Morton said.
Katrina Pope has worked under Morton for the past five years. There’s no difference between Wayne the boss and Wayne the person, she said.
“He’s selfless. He doesn’t think about himself first. He wants all of his crew to make it. If he makes, we make it,” she said. “And it’s genuine. He loves all his workers and most important, he loves his people, and that’s his customers and potential customers. He has a passion for food and a passion for people.”
Morton got an unexpected boost after a Sept. 12 Index-Journal story about his plans to enter the restaurant business, which has been shared almost 200 times and led to small conversations with people in the community offering him support, Morton said.
“I know I’m seeing my name in the lights now, but those guys behind the scenes, I can’t do this by myself,” Morton said. “But I worked hard for this. I worked really, really hard.”
Morton and his brother, Larry, a retired U.S. Navy captain who spent 23 years in the service, renovated a building at 1513 Edgefield St. While Wayne will be serving up buffet-style food six days a week, Larry is running a real estate firm in the next room.
“I’m very proud of him, sometimes. Don’t tell him,” Larry said. “To move back home after 23 years of service and actually open something up in my local area with him, it’s great.”
There’s an element of Morton’s pursuit that goes beyond personal gratification. A product of Greenwood, he’s disheartened at the ongoing violence within the county.
Through mentorships with civic groups, Morton has been able use food as a unifying factor.
“I do that as much as possible, trying to tell them the right way to go,” Morton said. “I let them know that there’s another way. You can make it. With a lot of hard work, you can do whatever you want.”
Morton expects a steady crowd from noon to 6 p.m. on Oct. 5, when he opens his doors. But there’s one contingent he’s particularly eager to see.
“Promised Land is behind me. They’re going to support me. There’s a lot of good people there,” he said. “It’s a dream come true for me, man. It’s just a dream come true,” Morton said.