This restaurant tastes like freedom: a story that took 31 years to tell.

When you know where Bryan Slayton was, you'll know where he's going.

This restaurant tastes like freedom: a story that took 31 years to tell.
Bryan Slayton, Bad Wraps Inc., MLK Ave., Chattanooga, Tennessee

When you know where Bryan Slayton was, you'll know where he's going.

"Food is opening up this door for me. It's an avenue. A travel ticket, a passport, a means to the ends. "

Walk into Bad Wraps Inc. on MLK Ave. and try not to grin. Or laugh and exhale in that deep-chested-feel-good way.

It's nearly impossible. You get enveloped by restaurant owner Bryan Slayton with his smile, big-body kindness, inviting dap and hug.

Like his wraps, Slayton wraps around you. You feel comfort food even before you take a bite.

Such open-heartedness is powerful.

It's even more powerful when you know where Slayton spent the last 31 years.

Bad Wraps is tucked on MLK Ave. next to Calliope, across the street from Hutton & Smith Brewing Co. and a block or two down from Uncle Larry's.

Drive by and you might see him, outside, waving, folks honking. He's ten toes down; this is his spot; the universe is behind him. So confident, he offers this promise about his food:

"Don't like it?" Slayton says. "Don't pay for it."

Bad Wraps Inc. sells wraps – shrimp, veggie, chicken, salmon, steak, beef – and seven varieties of french fries, three types of fruit pies and, if you're lucky, banana pudding.

Bad Wraps Inc., MLK Ave., Chattanooga, Tennessee

He's been making wraps for years. But most of the time, he never had a proper kitchen. Hell, he didn't even have utensils.

"We used a Comet lid for a cheese grater," he said.

Two years ago – with a proper kitchen and utensils – he was living in Highland Park at his mother's, making wraps here and there for the neighborhood.

A friend was getting married and ordered 50 wraps at $5 apiece.

Then, after the wedding, the same man makes another order. And another.

"It blew up," said Slayton. "Everybody loved them."

More neighbors, other blocks, texting, calling. Soon, he's taking orders every week. Then, a food truck.

Three months ago, he opened Bad Wraps Inc. on MLK Ave in the Proof Restaurant and Bar incubator space.

Today, he's selling close to 800 wraps a week.

"I'm not saying I got a big head, but I want to put something on your mind," he begins, smiling. "I've been doing this for almost three years. Before then, have you ever heard of a wrap? And now, Taco Bell's got one. KFC's got one. I think I brought a genre to this city."

It is big-hearted bravado. Doubling-down, Slayton says his wraps have a secret ingredient.

"You can see what’s in there, but until you know my secret, you won’t make it like I make it," he says.

Slayton has another secret, forged in the machinery of the criminal justice system. This secret altered his heart, taught him how to survive, how to adapt, how to savor life.

"I spent 31 years in prison," he said.

Bryan Slayton, Bad Wraps Inc., MLK Ave., Chattanooga, Tennessee

He grew up in the Westside, or, as he calls it, "Da Blest Side." In 1988, when he was 21, he was convicted of selling drugs.

They offered him reduced time in exchange for information.

"I wouldn't talk," he said.

In June 1989, the day after his daughter was born, he was sentenced to prison.

All of his convictions were nonviolent.

There were no weapons charges, he said. Zero. None. Nor paraphernalia. He was never in a gang.

And for three decades, he was locked inside federal prisons.

"Started in Alabama," he begins, "then Atlanta, Oklahoma, Three Rivers, Texas, Texarkana, Oklahoma City, Kentucky, Manchester, Lexington, Carolina, West Virginia, Louisiana."

So when a man spends 31 years in a cell that can measure 6' x 9' and which feels like a coffin, using Comet tops for cheese graters, his finger for a toothbrush, witnessing four, maybe five murders a day at times ... when that man finally tastes fresh air, sees a full moon, grills oxtail on a Saturday night and sleeps late on a Sunday, hugs his daughter every day for a month straight, well, yes: you're damn straight he's got a secret ingredient.

He's gonna go hard.

He's gonna pour everything into this.

It's new life.

"A year ago, I was sleeping on the floor in my mother's house," he said.


"I've got a restaurant, a food truck and just resigned a lease on an apartment," he said.

Bryan Slayton, Bad Wraps Inc., MLK Ave., Chattanooga, Tennessee

When Slayton was first released, he had nothing: no credit, no bank account, no phone, no address to call his own. Tony Oliver – childhood friend and owner of TNT Cleaning – gave him a job. Then, Darrel "D-Mack" Owens encouraged him to take some wraps to Candy Johnson and the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga.

Slayton says none of this would happen without them.

"They were instrumental in my linking up with Proof," he said.

So, now, he's building community. Helping others. Fundraising through Bad Wraps Inc. for children of incarcerated men. Speaking to groups and students. Maybe political aspirations.

"I want somebody in office that speaks strictly to prison guys. And their rights. What happens when we leave out of prison," he begins.

In September, a community meeting hosted by Chattanooga Endeavors and Tim Dempsey met inside Bad Wraps.

"The state of mental health in our prisons has been steadily going up. Now, people coming home from prison are more likely to have mental illness than not," Dempsey said.

Men and women released from prison has served time on paper, but their debt never ends. Jobs don't pay enough to afford housing in this city. Mental illness, already smoldering, deepens. Formerly incarcerated men and women become the least of these.

"It's a community within a community that is ostracized by every community," Slayton says.

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In the 80s, cocaine was here in Chattanooga; crack was coming. He dipped his toes in the water.

A girl warned him: leave those drugs alone.

Another girl turned him onto a dealer. Soon, Slayton sold drugs out of a Broad Street restaurant. An informant with a wire caught Slayton in the wrong place.

It is 1989. He won't be released until 2020.

"Wherever he went, I went also and took his child," said his mother, Marilyn Slayton. "I always promised him: you'll see your daughter grow up."

Slatyon's mother and daughter Tiffany – "whom I lovingly call Lil' Bone," he says – followed Slayton, visiting prison for holidays, birthdays. They'd drive all night, spending eight hours in the tile-floor prison room under fluorescent lights, with guards in the corner and quarters for vending machine lunch and diapers and baby food in jars for his daughter.

"She took her first steps in an Atlanta prison," he remembers.

In prison, Slayton cooked.

"You had to do a lot of stuff with commissary food. One guy gets vegetables. Another gets cheese. Another gets meat," he said. "You make a shredder [for the cheese] in there. It's a Coke can with holes poked in it."

You improvise. The prison pipeline can also supply fruit and vegetables. No milk for banana pudding? "Make it with creamer," he said.

"The only time for good meals is holidays. And the Super Bowl," he said. "It's like in school. Every Wednesday, hamburger. Every Thursday, it's chicken. I ate so many chicken legs, I will not eat chicken leg or thigh right now. I don't care who makes it. If Wolgang Puck makes it, I will not eat it."

He compared violence and race riots to "Gladiator." Prison is wildly segregated. Murder Inc. Gangster Disciples. Bloods. Vice Lords. Aryan Nation. Dirty White Boys. Never part of a gang, Slayton's protection came from Tennessee inmates.

"If you're not on gang time, you're on Tennessee time," he said. "You're with your set. The Tennessee sections sits right here. Your hommies got your back."

So when he transferred to another prison, other inmates want to know what you're made of.

"They're going to see if you stand your ground," Slayton said.

Where you from?

Wherever I want to be from.

Bryan Slayton, Bad Wraps Inc., MLK Ave., Chattanooga, Tennessee

And weapons?

"Let me count the ways," he begins. "Knives, shanks, you know what can kill you - soap in a sock. Hard bars of lye soap. Or you put a combination lock in a sock."

Released in 2020, the daydreams he'd carried for three decades became real.

"I wanted oxtail. Mac and cheese. Marinated vegetables. Banana pudding," he said.

Free, Slayton also wasn't. No credit, no savings, no work history in a town with an affordable housing crisis.

He slept on his mother's floor. No mattress. "I didn't want to get comfortable," he said. Even when his mother ordered one, he told the delivery men: take it back.

So he hustled. Earned enough for a food truck. Then, Proof Restaurant and Bar Incubator on MLK Ave. offered him a spot.

Bryan Slayton, Bad Wraps Inc., MLK Ave., Chattanooga, Tennessee

"Food is a gateway for me now," he says.

He's got selfies with Mayor Tim Kelly and former US Senator Bob Corker, who've visited Bad Wraps.

"I wanted to talk to a senator whole time I was locked up," he said. "Food is opening up this door for me. It's an avenue. A travel ticket, a passport, a means to the ends."

His mom, with him through it all, smiles so big these days.

"I am so proud of who he is," she said.

In jail, Slayton once met an older guy. Real cool, comical, knowledgable older guy. They got to be friends. One morning, the older man asked:

What are you locked up for?

Man, you know the game. You don't ask a guy that.

Come on man. What are you in for?

I'm in jail for selling drugs.

The older man paused, thought for a second, then continued:

Man, how many people you think you know? All total.

Maybe 1000.

How many you sell drugs to?

Maybe 200, 250.

So that's 750 you didn't reach.


Older man paused. Then, spoke again.

How many people you know that eat?

Everybody eats. Lot more than 1000.


"And it hit me: I don't have to sell drugs. I can sell something everybody uses," Slayton says, all these years later. "And everybody eats."

Bryan Slayton, Bad Wraps Inc., MLK Ave., Chattanooga, Tennessee

All photography by Sarah Unger. Visit

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