A MIXED PORTFOLIO: Copper Cellar's Michael Chase, president (left) and Curtiss Gibson, VP operations, oversee seven concepts, among them Copper Cellar (top), Smoky Mountain Brewery and Restaurant (middle) and Calhoun's (bottom).
RIB-STICKING: Smoked baby back ribs are the house specialty at Calhoun's.
OASIS: Cherokee Grill offers a respite from honky tonk Gatlinburg.
DESIGNER BREWS: Awardwinning microbewed beers are served at all Copper Cellar restaurants.
UPSCALE CASUAL: The first Copper Cellar (top and below) created the niche in Knoxville.
Sit back easy-like and glide into effortless chatter with Michael Chase, president and founder of Copper Cellar Corp. His words pour out, all Southern comfortable, flowing smooth: a Tennessee drawl combining the polished diction honed while he was at Cheshire Academy (a prep school in Connecticut) with the honey and grits dialect he sucked up while majoring in history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, home of Copper Cellar.
Copper Cellar has just celebrated its 30th anniversary and is ready to make a run at 30 more.
"What's so hard?" Chase says. "Managing a restaurant is not hard. What's so hard?"
The last thing Chase's father—one of the top legal minds in DC— wanted was for his son to be in the restaurant business.
"All I ever wanted was to be in the restaurant business," Chase says.
"My Dad had a friend in the restaurant business, Harry Clevas, who represented most of the Greek restaurateurs in DC. Dad asked Harry what he thought of the restaurant business and what my chances would be. He said there are two things that happen when you're in the restaurant business, and one of them happens 95 percent of the time: You lose a lot of money fast. The other five percent? You make a lot of money fast."
For 30 years, Chase and his VP and director of operations, Curtiss Gibson, have meticulously and tirelessly overseen an exceptional mix of 14 restaurants, most in the Knoxville area, two in Nashville, where customers believe the restaurants are run by "that chain in Knoxville." Chase prefers to think of the company as a collection of independent restaurants. Eight of the 14 restaurants are Calhoun's. The first opened in 1983, eight years after the first Copper Cellar opened in an abandoned pool hall.
That was when Chase and Gibson, having surveyed the restaurant landscape in Knoxville, made up their minds to give Knoxvillians what they correctly assumed Knoxvillians didn't have: contemporary American fine-dining stripped of pretense, stuffiness, intimidation and a dress code.
"In 1975 there wasn't any real place to eat in Knoxville where you didn't have to wear a coat and tie to get in," Chase recalls. "The riff-raff—whatever that is—wasn't welcome at the one or two places that called themselves fine dining. We love the riff-raff. We don't throw anyone out of our restaurants."
The succession of restaurants, beginning with the first Copper Cellar (sophisticated American), included Cappuccino's ( northern Italian cuisine, 1977), Cumberland Grill (burgers and steaks, 1981) and Chesapeake's (authentic Eastern seashore seafood, 1982). All are still open and running today; with one exception, all are open seven days a week, their hostesses dealing with a waiting list nearly every night.
"We love the riff-raff. We don't throw anyone out of our restaurants."
The first Copper Cellar had 76 seats in the dining room, 14 in the bar. The lines formed almost immediately. It wasn't that customers knew what to expect even before the doors opened, it was because, as Chase explains it, "This was Knoxville, 1975: there wasn't any place comfortable to eat in Knoxville where you could go and have a good time."
There was also this: "The food was good, man," Chase says. "Word got out in a hurry....We had center-of-the-plate quality: fresh food you didn't have to mess with to make it taste good.
Take salmon. "It's got great basic flavor. Do I give it another flavor by piling on sauces and mashed potatoes? That's not fine dining. That's what fine dining isn't. We don't need our center-of-the-plate items to taste different by saucing them up," Chase explains.
Other chains may brag about cooking everything from scratch, Gibson adds, but "all that means is they're adding prepared ingredients purchased from one manufacturer to value-added proteins purchased from another."
Copper Cellar makes darn near everything from scratch, much of it only minutes before it's served. Sauces and dressings are mixed and prepared at a commissary. Bread, cornbread and biscuits are baked fresh. Coleslaw, salads and baked beans all are made and served fresh, not held in 40-gallon containers in a walkin, then portioned out and heated or tossed whenever a guest orders one or the other.
"We do not use preservatives," says Gibson. "We make everything in small batches. A guest will be getting blue cheese dressing that we make three or four times a week."
"We buy the best quality proteins," he adds. "You don't mess with quality on the way to the table. We don't gild the lily."
Chase and Gibson are in business because they love food, love the business and want to share that love with employees and customers. "The amount of money we make is secondary," Chase explains. "The passion of running the restaurants, serving good food: That's what we love. None of us went to biz school; none of us majored in economics. We just wanted to get into the restaurant business."
Make money, however, they do. Sales for 2005 were projected to reach about $44 million. Not bad for 14 restaurants with check averages around $12 for lunch, $16-$20 for dinner.
After an eight-year hiatus, during which Copper Cellar focused on opening a string of eight Calhoun's, it decided to add to its mix of "upscale" (the expression makes Chase cringe) restaurants. Even though all of the restaurants— Calhoun's included—served prime meats, the group lacked a restaurant committed to nothing but great steaks.
Enter the 200-seat Cherokee Grill, a steakhouse designed by Chase's wife, Donna, whose fine design hand is evident in all of the restaurants. Her interiors are all different, expressions of her creativity and risk-taking, originals that deviate pleasingly from any mode critics might want to classify as cookie-cutter. Not so, however, the menus: They reflect the comfort-food trademark the company is known for and from which it has rarely strayed.
Menu management is in the hands of Chase, Gibson and anyone else who wishes to pitch in with his or her two cents' worth. A couple of exec chefs may have something to say about menu concepts as well. Eli Whitney works the Copper Cellar, Chesapeake, Cherokee Grill side of the company; Paul Rentschler handles the Calhoun's side. They develop sauces, dressings and cooking methods; fiddle with ideas for specials; visit kitchens periodically to make sure cooks aren't meddling with the formulas; travel, attend shows and conferences with the express purpose to mingle and taste.
Cherokee Grill opened in 2000, in Gatlinburg, home of Dollywood. A heavily traveled stretch of U.S. 441 heaves past a garish excess of motels, restaurant chains and trashy shops that rivals, in tackiness, a lot of what slithers the length of both sides of South Las Vegas Blvd.
The freestanding Cherokee Grill and, for good measure, the freestanding Smoky Mountain Brewery & Restaurant—a beer, steak, subs, and pizza place, an extension of the company's decision in 1995 to open up a microbrewery inside of a Calhoun's—offer a refreshing respite from the specious glitter of the Gatlinburg strip.
With Calhoun's, Copper Cellar launched what became the first in a series of barbecue and rib joints dubbed audaciously, "The Taste of Tennessee." The first one opened October 1983, and it was a struggle. "We were losing 20 grand a month, but I knew we had great ribs," Chase says. "Nobody down here had ever eaten baby back ribs; this was spare rib country. Big difference. Calhoun's was going to show them the difference, educate them. Wasn't easy."
"Nobody down here had ever eaten baby back ribs;
this was spare rib country. Big difference." –Michael Chase
Not necessarily: the company had made its mark in fine dining, so a brand extension—even something like a rib joint—would likely find favorable acceptance among Knoxvillians. After all, here it was 1983, eight years after the first Copper Cellar opened. Wasn't it time for the company to add something different to its mix—something a little more down home?
Eight months after the Calhoun's opening, Chase, Gibson and company headed for the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago expressly to taste ribs at Carson's, The Place for Ribs. Carson's was the best rib restaurant in the Midwest. So said the Chicago media. Maybe Carson's was on to something; maybe Chase and Gibson could learn something; find out how to improve Calhoun's ribs. After the tasting, Chase shook his head. He said to Gibson, "I don't think so: Ours are twice as good."
And he set out to prove it. "I mean, how long can you keep losing 20 grand a month?"
A buddy of Chase's told him about the National Rib Cook-Off to be held in Cleveland later that year. Chase scrounged up a trailer from another buddy, filled it with smokers, ribs, tents, whatever. Off Calhoun's went to Cleveland where, says Chase, "We sold a few ribs the first day, lots more on Friday, and then, the lines started to form. Security guards, firemen, police told us they had sampled darn near all of the ribs at all of the restaurants there and decided that ours were the best. Word got out. We had a hard time keeping up."
Following a marathon of tastings, the judges—foodies, critics and restaurateurs—named Calhoun's "Best Ribs in America." The title carried with it a $10,000 first prize.
Now, with bragging rights to the best ribs in America, Copper Cellar backburnered all thoughts about opening fine-dining restaurants. For the next 20 years (interrupted only by the opening in 2000 of the Cherokee Grill in Gatlinburg),-all the company's bucks, resources, intelligence and marketing went into opening seven more Calhoun's, two of them in Nashville.
Winning the cookoff was the stimulus that launched Calhoun's. Says Chase. "We got tremendous media exposure. We'd never had much of that. We had TV and people at the airport congratulating us when we returned from Cleveland. We were the rib kings of America."
And that meant transforming Calhoun's into a place fit for rib kings, moving away from the "barbecue barn" toward a casual theme feel and borrowing a few items from Copper Cellar menus. Hamburgers, pork sandwiches, potato skins, chicken fingers and specialty salads were added to attract women. Wine, beer and cocktails were sold.
It took Knoxville by storm.
In 1988—two Calhoun's later—Copper Cellar Corp. opened Calhoun's on the River downtown, not too far from the 100,000-seat Tennessee Volunteers football stadium.
The site of this latest Calhoun's had been vacant for years after going through several incarnations, none of them any good.
"Nobody wanted to take a chance on it," Chase recalled. "I took that chance. Three people had opened and closed it. Why? The food sucked. I bought it for $400,000. We opened it with hard work, dedication and good food."
The 450-seat restaurant (with 400 more seats on the second floor for banquets) has become the best place to chill out for every football and rib fan in Knoxville, even when the Vols aren't at home. Sports Illustrated named it one of four or five top college sports bars in the country. When there's a football game, tailgaters line both sides of the parking lot. It is a sight to see.
"What would I sell it for today? I believe I'd ask somewhere between $12 and $14 million," Chase says.
Finally, if you are wondering what there is to celebrate, other than being in business for three decades (no mean feat), there is this: In 30 years, Copper Cellar Corp. has never had to close any of its restaurants, never had to sell any of them and, except for occasional additions or deletions to its menus based on trends or the often cavalier whims of its customers, never had to alter any of its concepts.
COPPER CELLAR RESTAURANTS: PRINCIPLES OF SUCCESS
THE LINEUP - COPPER CELLAR CORP.