Walter Clay opened Raes Coastal Cafe in 1992 and it has grown to become a major-week staple for many restaurant goers, including those also seeking to win a green jacket
Early on a Tuesday afternoon during Masters Tournament week may be the least hectic time you will find at Raes Coastal Cafe in Augusta, Georgia. During this adrenaline-laden week of wall-to-wall dining, Raes proprietor Walter Clay is having a moment aside to prepare for the evening’s dining festivities at his Caribbean restaurant located on the banks of a much-thinner Rae’s Creek approximately 5 miles from Augusta National Golf Club. Making sure there’s plenty of signature, meaty jerk chicken wings and cold Red Stripe beer is a must.
Just about when he’s getting things in order and dinnertime approaches on this spring day in 2014, the phone behind the bar rang.
“Walter? This is Miguel. I would like the room for tonight,” asked the man who was Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez, a Masters participant that week. He has been a regular here for years since hearing about the remote restaurant and inviting family and friends.
“No problem, Miguel. We will set it aside for you,” Clay responded, reserving the 12-seat, private dining area in the back of the building. Clay continued to listen attentively and could barely hear Jimenez speaking on the other end. There was a whisper. Birds were chirping. A mild roar erupted.
“Miguel, are you at Augusta National? You know, you’re not supposed to have a cell phone out there,” Clay chided.
“Walter … why do you think I am calling you from the bushes?” Jimenez fired back.
AN IN THE KNOW LOCALE
The restaurant business during Masters week is a never-ending churn. Folks depart Augusta National for the jam-packed but convenient locations along Washington Road with cornerstones such as TBonz or Hooters, chain restaurants and establishments that seemingly change names and fares every April.
Downtown Augusta offers a growing option, led by the traditional Luigi’s and other newer locales. Off-the-beaten path places such as Raes or spots among the hilly neighborhoods of Augusta, North Augusta and the suburbs draw crowds too, but a bit more of a curious and researched Masters palate is required.
Destination Augusta’s latest study for 2021 reveals that the eastern Georgia city’s $700 million economic impact total is topped by food and beverage, with an approximate $200 million intake (30%), according to numbers supplied by Tourism Economics. Lodging, retail, recreation and transportation complete the top five consumer focuses for the year, as solely Masters week numbers aren’t available. With its excessive nature — as hotel rooms go for an average of $600 per night during tournament days or homes for as much as $20,000 for the week — accommodations reach the high-dollar mark for Masters week but fall behind the food scene for 52 weeks.
Masters visitors can’t get enough of the on-site, low-priced offerings at Augusta National: pimento cheese and egg salad sandwiches at the top of that chart. But evening festivities are even more anticipated, for fans, players and officials to find a spot where they don’t have to cook and clean up, discover a minimum wait — or at least quick bar service — and one that offers hordes of other green-clad, sunburned Masters aficionados. Prices may be a bit higher than normal on a smaller menu, but it’s not exorbitant like finding a room.
“We quadruple sales over a normal week,” Clay says. “Imagine your business having 13 months volume with 12 months of expenses and then there’s the rest of April — three more weeks? And our second busiest week is probably the week after the Masters when all the local people come back, all the bosses are working again — back from vacations, rentals or avoiding any Masters crowds — and many other restaurants are taking a break. We’re open.”
Clay, 64, has been a restauranteur going back to the mid-1970s whether he realized it or not. Growing up in 1970s Augusta as a high school student at Aquinas High School, he was swept up in the concessions wave of younger Masters volunteers, being dropped off at 6 a.m., and picked up at 9:30 that evening. His most vivid memory is of being a less-than 18-year-old serving bottled beer from a bucket full of ice at 8 a.m., in a tent adjacent to the first fairway as Jack Nicklaus, in green shirt with white stripes, strolled down the first fairway en route to his fifth Masters win in 1975.
College called and Clay moved two hours west to Atlanta and Georgia Tech, bound to be an engineer or a math teacher. Back home two years later, figuring out what was next became daunting. He met some folks who were revolutionizing the restaurant business in Augusta. One offered a job as a waiter and Clay was sold. He enrolled at nearby Augusta College by 1979 to pursue a math degree.
"The biggest draw was the people who worked in the restaurant business were so much more interesting than the people in engineering school,” Clay says. "I really enjoyed just meeting new people every time I turned around. The education level was all over the place — guy in med school, person working blue-collar jobs.”
Clay was part of a contingent of restaurant enthusiasts who worked at Calvert’s, a fine-dining establishment still owned by Craig Calvert located not far from Augusta National. They all eventually started their own restaurants. Clay began waiting tables at Calvert's and went on to managing restaurants, including Chuck Baldwin’s famous French Market Grille. He partnered with Baldwin on opening Raes Coastal Cafe in 1992, spent a week in Jamaica to figure out how to make a killer jerk sauce, and purchased French Market Grille from Baldwin by 2015 to double the size of his restaurant coffers.
Now he’s in the process of turning the business over to his son, Shadrick, who was born in 1993, the year after Raes opened. Clay has started a locally televised cooking show and partners with Shadrick on a new restaurant concept that’s in the works. He talks of traveling the Great Loop by boat with his girlfriend, Ashley Wright, living in other cities for short stints and even getting back into math tutoring.
NO SHORTAGE OF MASTERS MOMENTS
The opportunity to interact with golf fans sometimes leads to famous encounters.
Clay’s first Masters moment had little to do with running a restaurant. When he was managing French Market he would ask for friends’ Masters badges just for a couple hours to go out and see a few golf shots and chat with folks. There would be an occasional card handed out or fliers left on cars to suggest a dining spot for the evening. In the second round of the 1990 Masters, Clay was with Baldwin, walking left of the landing area on the par-5 eighth hole at Augusta National when 1988 Masters champion Sandy Lyle teed off.
"I had some kind of morning out there — already had a head shot on No. 2 and a kneecap on No. 5," Lyle recalled in mid-March, on the eve of making his final Masters appearance this year. "Then another head shot on No. 8. ... [Clay] was the only guy walking out there, about 280 yards out, so I figured he was safe enough. This ball started in the middle of the fairway and went ... ‘Oh, there he is’ and it goes that way. It hit him in the back of the ear, a pretty nasty bang, and knocked him about four steps up the hill."
Clay went down in a heap, was out for a bit and was administered to by medical personnel. A few minutes later, Jodie Mudd’s tee ball also landed nearby. By the way, Lyle went on to birdie the hole and Clay stayed on site.
"A friend of mine across the way said, ‘I thought you were dead. You hit the ground like a pinecone falling out of a tree,'" Clay says. "When Jodie’s ball hit the ground, I started crawling behind a tree."
Other than respecting calls of “Fore” on the golf course more, there were few physical aftereffects. But the episode did funnel into a more notable Masters week elbow-rubbing with golfers and relatives.
"We have met a number of players over the years and I always ask how they found us," Clay says. "Most say it’s word of mouth in the locker room with other players talking. A lot of folks say, ‘You’re not everybody’s top pick, but you are in everybody’s top three.’
“No matter who walks through the door, it’s like a family reunion. You don’t see your cousins every day, but it’s great when you do.”
Jimenez’s first trip to Raes in the early 2000s was met with Clay providing three bottles of Greg Norman Cabernet. Except Clay went into his office and doctored the labels to make it read "Miguel Angel Jimenez" brand instead. With a restless group awaiting the wine, he presented the bottles for Jimenez’s approval. Finally, Jimenez glanced at the label, smiled and said, "You will be my friend, Walter." One year, when the coveted Masters invitation arrived by mail, Jimenez gathered friends at his Spanish club and revealed the invitation with this thought, "We are going to Raes Coastal Cafe."
"Every year, we went there several times throughout the week," Jimenez said in mid-March. "It’s my favorite place to go in Augusta."
In 2011, when D.A. Points won the Pebble Beach Pro-Am alongside amateur partner and actor Bill Murray, he qualified for the Masters and brought Murray to Augusta. The Points and Murray party ended up at Raes one evening and Murray tried to blend in. Clay recognized him, introduced himself and asked if he needed anything to stay behind the scenes. An hour later, Murray became comfortable, visited the corner bar, greeted everyone and was so appreciative that he offered to meet the restaurant staff. One by one, he had sit-downs with waiters, cooks and bartenders. It made the whole place’s night.
Masters week has also brought sadness. When the Masters badge market went through the ceiling in 1997 prior to Tiger Woods’ first victory, a pall fell upon the local community. Clay’s friend, Allen Caldwell, was involved in the secondary Masters ticket market and his commitment of tickets was sold out from under him. Distraught and in deep debt, Caldwell committed suicide prior to the second round. Clay had visited him the day prior to offer encouragement.
“I didn’t have a grasp for what the Masters looked like outside of the restaurant and the gates,” Clay says. “When the ticket market exploded, a number of people turned their backs on (Caldwell). It was a painful experience for me and understanding and knowing the value of friendship. I always think about that come Masters time.”
There was also a helpless feeling when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The 2020 Masters was moved to the fall with no spectators and limited attendance permitted for the spring 2021 tournament. The rental market and restaurants struggled, particularly without the upsurge of business both springs. Clay had to close his business and lay off 74 of his 80 workers at two restaurants. He told all staffers in person about the plight, sought unemployment benefits and made family meals for the former employees. That caretaking brought benefits.
“When we started working for takeouts, former staff members who were bored at home showed up to help,” Clay says. “We all wore masks and looked like a surgical unit when cooking. They came back in droves.”
Last year and especially this spring, Raes will again be at full throttle.
Then there’s the relationship with golfer turned Golf Channel/NBC broadcaster Brad Faxon and his family. Faxon’s first of 12 Masters starts came in 1992 and the family was staying in a neighborhood just off Walton Way and about a mile from Raes, which is unusually set among condos and tennis courts in a low-slung hut-like building that carries a Jamaican vibe. Cell phone service is spotty and the back porch is suitable for an even more casual experience. There are even a couple of turf putt-putt like greens out back adjacent to the famous creek.
“It was close, easier to get to from our rental home the beginning of the week,” Faxon said. “We met Walter and just kinda started going there every year. I’ll be there this year, for sure.”
Brad Faxon Sr. even took to it more. He and Clay became fast friends and stayed in touch year round, playing golf at various events around New England, the nation and in the UK. Faxon friends were drawn to the spring shindig and became a part of the Masters-New England connection. Faxon Sr. and his wife Elieen began renting a condo in the Raes neighborhood, a tradition he held everywhere he lived to find one place and dedicate himself to that establishment. It wasn’t unusual to find the elder Faxon at the bar nursing a Miller Lite as the place hummed along during Masters week.
“He took extra care of you if you were a pro golfer, but he also didn’t make a big deal of the fact you were a Masters participant,” Brad Faxon says. “He treats everybody the same.
“I can’t imagine what his life is like 51 weeks out of the year for them, and then all of the sudden the Masters comes. There’s an onslaught.”
Last January, planning was in place for the two Brads and Clay to have a round with an Augusta-residing member at Augusta National. That was in mid-January, but Faxon Sr. was ill with cancer and wouldn’t be able to play. Clay journeyed north to Massachusetts to look in on his friend. He arrived the evening before Faxon Sr. passed away on Jan. 21 at age 84.
“I lost a dear friend of mine,” Clay says. “The caretaker told me after he died he was just waiting to say goodbye to some people. We spent a lot of time in golf together. Faxon Sr.’s sister, Lee, became a great friend and she’s in the restaurant business on Cape Cod.
“Brad Sr. always said Rae’s was his kind of place. I hope a lot of folks who go to restaurants can say something like that.”