Keeping it Simply Excellent
Copper Cellar family nears 40 years of quality food, superior service
Success doesn’t always have to be complicated.
Sometimes, in fact, it’s just a matter of taking a basic concept and executing it to a higher standard.
Such is the case with the Copper Cellar family of restaurants, which has taken a clear-cut mission – providing quality food with quality service at competitive prices – and turned it into a dynasty of nearly 40 years in and around its home base of Knoxville, Tenn.
The company owns its own trucks and does its own driving to supply its restaurants. It houses its food supplies and ships from a centralized Knoxville commissary facility. The owner’s wife and two daughters all play integral roles in design, marketing and management.
In all, nearly 1,400 employees play a part in the process.
“In a day and age of chains and cookie-cutter restaurants, we try to stay away from fads and from chasing what’s popular at the moment,” says Bart Fricks, the organization’s chief operating officer. “Good food has always been popular. It’s not a matter of who has the latest gimmick. We base our operation on community involvement, excellent service, how clean we keep the restaurants.
“Those are the things that never go out of style.”
The tradition began in 1975 on the Cumberland Avenue strip in Knoxville, where owner Michael Chase opened his first Copper Cellar restaurant – a classic steakhouse – just a short jaunt from the sprawling University of Tennessee. Another Copper Cellar followed soon after, before Chase decided to change course and expand the brand with Chesapeake’s, which offers an array of seafood.
It was a risky move to tweak a successful recipe, but passion won out over practicality.
“The first two restaurants were Copper Cellars and they were very successful, but (Chase) is from the Maryland area and he likes to eat,” Fricks says. “He’s very passionate about food and he wanted to offer a variety of options for his customers.”
More evidence of Chase’s entrepreneurial acumen came with his fourth restaurant, Calhoun’s, which entered an already crowded barbecue space in the area and initially failed to distinguish itself as a casual restaurant compared to the fine dining experiences Chase offered at Copper Cellar and Chesapeake’s.
Seeking to establish the fledgling brand in an unmistakably visible manner, the ownership team packed up the necessary supplies and headed to Cleveland to take part in a “Best Ribs in America” competition, where it felt a reputation was there to be made via head-to-head competition.
By the time they returned to Knoxville – as the event’s champion – the goal had been reached.
“When they came back, the news was all over that they’d been named the best ribs in America,” Fricks says. “All the TV stations covered it and things went kind of crazy. This was before social media and all that. People’s attentions were much more focused. And it took off after that. People were more in tune. It was a more profitable business model than the steakhouse and we did very good volumes. “
“When you’re on a roll with something, you roll with it and you go with it. That’s what we did.”
These days, the family has grown to 16 restaurants, which includes eight Calhoun’s locations, two Copper Cellars, one Chesapeake’s, one Cherokee Grill (a spinoff of the Copper Cellar concept in Gatlinburg, Tenn.) and four of the organization’s newest concept – Smoky Mountain Brewery.
“For us, it’s about being home,” Fricks says. “We grew up in this area and the people in the restaurants are from this area. If you’re coming in, you’re getting a taste of what Tennessee has to offer. We’re pretty successful, but we try to stay humble. We live in a glass house and we don’t like to throw stones.
“The restaurant business is a hard business and it’s our mission every day to make people happy.”
BREWING A WINNER
The first Smoky Mountain Brewery was opened in 1996 – also in Gatlinburg – and features micro-brewed beer, pizza, subs and sandwiches in a setting Fricks likened to a “traditional sports bar.”
Three more have since opened in Knoxville, Maryville and Pigeon Forge
“(Chase) is an entrepreneur in every sense of the word and he can see potential in things that others can’t see, whether it’s picking out a restaurant site or figuring what he wants on the menus,” Fricks says. “It’s been about 20 years since we started doing the beer. Everybody seems to be doing it now, but he was thinking about it 20 years ago. He had a vision and he wanted to produce his own beer.”
Chase recruited Marty Velas to become his brewmaster and quickly took advantage of the Californian’s unique approach as not only a connoisseur of the beverage, but as an expert on the chemistry that’s necessary to consistently brew high quantities of quality-tasting stock.
That over-the-top attention to detail is vital at each step in a brewing process that, unlike a restaurant kitchen, can result in significant time delays and loss of materials if it’s not done correctly
“If we’re cooking a steak and we burn it, we can throw on another, apologize to you at the table and have your dinner to you in 15 more minutes,” Fricks says. “The quickest batch of beer takes two weeks to brew, and if you make a mistake with it you’ve got to start all over. The seasonal beers take six to eight weeks and if you mess one of those up, you’re out of that one for the season.
“It’s one thing for a couple buddies to brew beer in a basement. This requires someone who knows how things are supposed to work and who understands the quality and the science of beer.”
The groundbreaking on a Smoky Mountain Brewery in Bristol, Va. – a transaction which originated when the owners of a to-be-constructed Cabela’s sporting goods store ate at a Calhoun’s and ultimately struck a deal with Chase to join the commercial development – was planned for this month, with the restaurant expected to open early in 2015.
A second brewery and a Calhoun’s will follow, marking the organization’s longest stretch from its home city. Still, in spite of the expansion of territory, world domination is not on the agenda.
“It’s a stretch for us to go that far out of the comfort zone, but we feel we have a good team in place and we’ll be successful doing that,” Fricks says. “But I don’t see any time in the near future that you’ll see us popping up on every corner. We’ll have to wait to see how it goes. But anything even approaching that would be well into the future.”
A more short-term objective is the continuation of a process that began when the company was approached by personnel from Neyland Stadium – home of the University of Tennessee’s football team, which seats more than 100,000 fans – to open a concession stand on game days.
Two stands were open and drew rave reviews during the recently completed 2013 season for the Volunteers, and stands are also being opened at Thompson Boling Arena, which hosts the men’s and women’s basketball teams along with concerts and other special events.
“It’s an avenue in our backyard where we don’t have to build or invest tons of money,” Fricks says. “We just go and do what we do well, which is serve good food. It’s another growth vehicle in the city of Knoxville and it provides tremendous brand exposure for Calhoun’s.
“We think it’s a win-win for everyone involved.”