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VOL. 40 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 16, 2016

Marshall takes once-tiny Puckett’s to new heights

By Jeannie Naujeck

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Andy Marshall, who has quickly expanded the number and types of restaurants A. Marshall Family Foods owns, says the “market will ultimately determine what it wants and needs.”

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Andy Marshall is one of Middle Tennessee’s most dynamic restaurateurs.

The former grocer, who launched Puckett’s Gro. & Restaurant in 2002 with a winning combination of Southern comfort food and live music, has grown his company, A. Marshall Family Foods, into a multi-concept restaurant group that employs more than 500 people and just landed on Inc. magazine’s list of fastest-growing private companies for the third consecutive year.

Marshall’s restaurant portfolio ranges from Hattie Jane’s Creamery ice cream shops to Homestead Manor, a restored antebellum property in Thompson’s Station that includes an event venue, restaurant, bar and a farm with orchard and greenhouse that supply the restaurant with fresh, organic fruits and vegetables.

Marshall has also expanded geographically from his original Leiper’s Fork and Franklin locations, with restaurants now in Nashville, Columbia, Westhaven and Chattanooga.

Later this year, the MTSU graduate will open a Hattie Jane’s and Puckett’s Gro. in Murfreesboro. And downtown Nashville will soon get a second Puckett’s-owned restaurant featuring “New South” cuisine in the iconic L&C Tower – just steps away from the wildly popular Puckett’s Gro. & Restaurant at 5th and Church.

With all that activity Marshall doesn’t get much time to rest, but he took a break from a recent vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to answer a few questions for The Ledger about the winning formula for his booming business.

What is the biggest risk with fast growth and how do you manage it?

“Growth is exciting and can be good. I think the real pitfall for someone like myself is that you like being on that list a little too much and try to force growth instead of letting opportunities present themselves that make sense for your company.’’

Was it always your intention to expand beyond the original Puckett’s concept, or was your growth organic?

“Our growth has been very organic. We quickly realized that our Puckett’s brand was something very special and that it needed to be protected and not forced into areas or buildings that it didn’t feel right in.

“Because opportunities keep coming our way that didn’t necessarily feel right for Puckett’s, but we could see the need, we developed some sister concepts. The other big factor was that as we have grown, we have attracted a more diverse and talented staff, and I love to challenge my staff and their talents to stretch and reach to try to accomplish something special.’’

Homestead Manor is very different from your other restaurants. Was restoring and preserving a historic property a personal dream?

“Homestead is a personal dream as we were given the opportunity to lease the property per event at the beginning, and as I spent time there on the property my mind would not rest with all the thoughts and visions I had for it.

“Somewhere along my path, I became a preservationist in that I found great satisfaction taking something discarded or underused and putting life and energy into to please others. I love that and it motivates me to no end.’’

You’ve gotten into locations just as they start to take off – downtown Nashville, Murfreesboro, Columbia. At what point did you realize that growth and development in Middle Tennessee was going to explode?

“I’m not going to sit here and pat myself on the back for being a great forecaster of business trends but I did see great potential with each of those markets and truly just wanted to make our business essential to each of them. And as they say, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’’’

What do you think about all of the new restaurants opening in Middle Tennessee? Where are the growth segments - gastropubs, fast casual, fine dining, etc.? Are population growth projections robust enough to support many more?

“This is something I have spoken to my associates about as we look at the Nashville market and Middle Tennessee as a whole. I personally feel that because Nashville has been in the national spotlight for all the right reasons, it has drawn some new operators from out of town.

“That is not necessarily a bad thing as it has already broadened our culinary offerings, but I do feel like Middle Tennessee has a lot of great independent operators that will be here long after the dust storm has settled. Competition is good and the market will ultimately determine what it wants and needs.’’

What new tastes and service expectations are the new residents bringing from other cities?

“Southern cuisine has been a rising trend for several years. It has made it to all major markets in the U.S. What I think you are seeing now is that Southern foods are not just down home ‘comfort foods’ anymore. The influence of the major markets and the customers that are migrating from them has brought a refinement and infusement to Southern foods. The net result is that now Southern foods are being offered on many different experience and price levels.’’

Some restaurateurs are having trouble finding staff for both front of house and kitchen positions. Are you seeing a tight labor market also?

“Quite frankly, it has never been a serious issue until about six to eight months ago with all the new entries into the market. We noticed fewer walk-ins and responses to postings. We are now seeing that trend loosen a bit but it may be our new norm until the market settles and begins to correct itself.’’

Is it also getting more difficult to source ingredients locally as farmers get more business from new restaurants?

“It certainly has been for the early farmers that began selling directly to restaurants. Just look at what has happened with Benton’s bacon, and the stress that put on supply and demand for them.

“Pick Tennessee is now trying to connect more farmers directly with restaurants but consistency in supply still remains a challenge. That is why we wanted to operate our own organic farm to try and have better control on what was planted and when.’’

What kinds of restaurants do you gravitate towards when you travel? Do you bring back business or menu ideas from your travels?

“I love eating fresh, so in Cabo that means fish caught that day. I am always looking for ideas on my travels. My wife is constantly reminding me to relax when we are out to dinner and turn off my entrepreneur radar.’’

Are you very involved in menus at your restaurants or do you leave it to your chefs? Do you enjoy cooking, farming, or gardening?

“My role has definitely changed as we have grown. Our early menus were limited to my abilities, but as we have grown and attracted more experienced and talented chefs I have encouraged them to create and present items for our menus.

“We have nurtured this by hosting our chefs and general managers on food tasting and trend tours in major markets like Chicago, New York, Charleston and Austin. This has spawned creativity, competition and camaraderie amongst our associates.

“Gardening has always been a passion for me, and I could very easily see that being a part of my retirement to keep me active and connected to the business.’’

What would be on the menu for your last meal?

“Thirty-day, dry-aged prime ribeye, mid-rare, potatoes au gratin, charred Brussels sprouts with a balsamic reduction, and a fresh garden salad with champagne vinaigrette paired with a Rodney Strong Cabernet.’’

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