New restaurant to bring award-winning food, country music to downtown Chattanooga

Middle Tennessee's popular Puckett's Restaurant is putting down roots in Chattanooga's Riverfront District, establishing a regional presence while sticking to its focus on downtown locations that highlight Southern food and hospitality.
photo Site of proposed Puckett's Grocery and Restaurant.

By the mid-1990s, middle-Tennessee businessman Andy Marshall, by then in his mid-30s, had checked all the boxes.

The owner of a cluster of Piggly Wiggly supermarkets, Marshall had risen to vice-president of the grocery chain and to president of the Tennessee Grocers Association. But with that success came a gnawing realization that he needed a career change. A self-described "people pleaser," Marshall says he realized that his stores were only as popular as their weekly advertised specials. He itched for a more personal connection to customers.

"There was something missing," says Marshall, who eventually sold his supermarkets and bought a little general store in the tiny Leiper's Fork community just south of Nashville. "I thought to myself, at the very least, I'll have the coolest country store out there."

Family members recall - with a trace of irony, now - that the Puckett's Grocery was supposed to be Marshall's "retirement project." And indeed, in those early days, it had the flavor of an enterprise designed more around yearnings than earnings. Customers ate Marshall's signature cherry-wood smoked barbecue on paper plates, and checkout at Puckett's was on the honor system - "Whad'ya have today, sir?"

But a funny thing happened on the way to Marshall's retirement bliss. Nashville's songwriter community discovered Puckett's as a place they could try out material in a genial family atmosphere, away from the smoke and rowdiness of the the Music City bar scene. Soon, the combination of award-winning barbecue and world-class music proved to be too lucrative to contain inside the four walls of a country store.

In 2004, the Marshall family began opening Puckett's Gro. & Restaurant locations throughout the mid-state: converting an old bicycle shop in Franklin, occupying a property that was once the landmark Harveys department store in downtown Nashville and converting a former hardware store on the public square in nearby Columbia. There were spin-offs, too: a bar here, a seafood restaurant there, even an events venue on an expansive farm property nestled in the rolling hills of Middle Tennessee.

Quite organically (and a bit unexpectedly), A. Marshall Family Foods, the parent company of the Puckett's Gro. & Restaurant brand, has been named to the 2014 Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in America, with more than 300 employees and counting. The restaurant's barbecue has been voted the best in Nashville, and its Church Street location in the Music City now serves 1,500 to 2,000 customers a day.

"People ask me, 'Did you haven an idea that things would work out like this?'," Marshall says. "No. I just take opportunities when they present themselves."

Every year the company has a strategic planning meeting called "Puckett's summit." For the last three years, one potential expansion spot outside the company's cozy I-65 corridor has consistently made the chalk board - Chattanooga.


When the announcement came down last month that Puckett's Gro. & Restaurant will join Chattanooga's downtown restaurant scene in early 2015, it seemed spontaneous, even inspired to those who recognized the mid-state name. In reality, it was the result of several years of due diligence by the chain's top managers, and a concerted recruitment effort by people here to attract the micro-chain to the Scenic City.

photo Puckett's

"For a couple of years, I've been going to Franklin and Nashville and making sure that Chattanooga was on (Puckett's) radar," said Blair Mard, a retail recruiter for the River City Company, a downtown development firm. "It was just about finding the perfect spot."

Marshall said the feeling was mutual, and that he had already begun scouting potential locations for a restaurant here several years ago. He had found a couple of potential sites here when he got the blockbluster news a few months ago that the former TGI Fridays restaurant location on Broad Street near the Tennessee Aquarium - perhaps the prime restaurant address in the city - was about to become available. In Puckett's corporate culture there is a saying that has become the company's guiding light: "Right people, right location, right timing." Suddenly, all three had lined up. It was clearly time to make the push into Chattanooga.

Company officials believe they have hit on a formula in the mid-state that will flourish here - barbecue plus country music equals success, call it pork and jeans. Puckett's upscale Southern cuisine is built on a foundation of slow-cooked pork barbecue, but also has a meat-and-three lunch menu that promises to make it a prime spot for downtown business customers. Then, at night, the restaurant will take on a party vibe, with many of the singer-songwriter's who play Puckett's stages in the mid-state eager to add Chattanooga to the performance rotation.

"Nashville exceeded our five year projections in the first year," says Claire Crowell, Marshall's daughter and the company's director of operations. Crowell said the Puckett's restaurant here will initially have 75 employees with the potential to add more. The Nashville store, by comparison, now has 125 workers.


Key to the success of Puckett's here will be whether the city embraces the intimate, singer-songwriter stages that have become a fixture at the restaurants. Nashville is unique in America with its access to a nearly bottomless well of music talent, including many established songwriters searching for places to try out new material.

Every Puckett's has an open floor plan with a stage to the side. In Nashville, musicians take the stage seven nights a week, often playing for tips. Nashville Puckett's manager LaDawn Jackson says her store gets about 100 inquiries a week from aspiring singer songwriters who want to perform there.

But the real stars of the Puckett's Gro. & Restaurant music circuit are established songwriters. The company even has a formula for regular performers: They must have had at least one No. 1 country hit or a several songs to chart in the Top 10. Some of the regulars include Wynn Varble, who co-wrote "Waitin' for a Woman" (recorded by Brad Paisley); Don Schlitz, "The Gambler" (Kenny Rogers), and "Forever and Ever, Amen" (Randy Travis); and Kerry Kurt Phillips, "Pickup Man" (Joe Diffie). A clutch of excellent Music Row studio musicians often form the back-up bands an Puckett's, and occasionally up-and-coming bands such as Raven Cliff become house regulars.


At its core, Puckett's is still a restaurant and will thrive (or not) on the strength of its food. In addition to the wood-smoked barbecue (get ready for the intoxicating smell of smoldering cherry wood around the Tennessee Aquarium), the Puckett's staff makes periodic assessments of the menu to add and subtract as needed.

Southern appetizers such as fried green tomatoes and fried green beans will be on the menu here; as will popular side items such as macaroni and cheese and turnip greens. The food staff gets inventive with burgers - a top seller at Puckett's is a batter-fried burger topped with pimento cheese and bacon jam. Also expect the Puckett's cooks to use indigenous food; Marshall is already thinking of ways to create home-grown desserts using Moon Pies.

Even though the Puckett's here will be at ground zero of the downtown tourist district, company officials say winning the hearts and minds of Chattanoogans will be their main goal.

photo A Puckett's restaurant is pictured in this file photo.

"What Puckett's does well is market to locals," says Holly Albright, of Sheridan Public Relations in Franklin, Tenn., which counts Puckett's among its clients.

Linda Thomason, a trust officer at First Famers & Merchants bank in Franklin, says her family frequents all the Puckett's locations in Middle Tennessee and she has noticed that it's a popular gathering spot on Sunday's with the after-church crowd.

If Puckett's becomes the go-to restaurant for locals, it will automatically become the top recommendation to tourists visiting the city, Marshall reasons. (Think the Rendezvous in Memphis.)

On top of accolades for the quality of its food, Puckett's has won awards in Franklin as a "top value" restaurant for its reasonable prices and hearty portions. A meat-and-three plate in the Franklin location is $9.99. A full breakfast menu includes such favorites as Bubba's Eggs Benedict (a split biscuit plate with bacon or sausage, two fried eggs and white-pepper gravy.) The dinner menu ranges from Southern Fried Chicken ($12.99) to filet mignon ($24.99).

Branching out from its Middle Tennessee roots is a big step for Puckett's, Marshall says, noting that the company will not rest on its laurels at the 6,300-square-foot Chattanooga store, which will have the biggest footprint in the chain.

"I have peace about this," Marshall says. "It's meant to be. It's such a great fit. But we're not going to rest on our success. We've got to come to Chattanooga and earn it all over again."

This story appeared in Edge magazine. Read Edge magazine online at