A Cut Above 2

Copper Cellar Family of Restaurants Raises the Bar on Its Beef

Take a drive through Knoxville, Lenoir City, Maryville or Gatlinburg and you’ll find a restaurant in the Copper Cellar family. Calhoun’s, Smoky Mountain Brewery, Chesapeake’s—there’s 20 of them, not including catering facilities, and while the menus and atmosphere differ depending on where you dine, one thing is consistent: quality.

“From the time I was a little boy I wanted to be in the restaurant business. It’s just a passion I have and a challenge,” says Mike Chase, owner of Copper Cellar Family of Restaurants. “That’s what the commissary is all about. We’re able to control the quality and standards we strive to achieve on everything, from the dressings and desserts to the beef.”

The first Copper Cellar opened on Cumberland in 1975, and Mike’s plan for perfection was already underway. At the time, all the beef came from Monfort Meat Packing Company in Greeley, Colorado, a detail promoted openly at Copper Cellar.

“It was a major meat packer back in those days, but like everything else, they got bought out,” Mike says. “If I showed you a menu from 1975, it would be there on the menu, so we’ve always tried to be a cut above.”

That phrase, “a cut above” became the company’s focus several years ago when the decision was made to increase the quality of beef even more by moving up from USDA Select Choice Beef to USDA Prime. Only certified Angus beef is served in the Copper Cellar family, a distinction that demands an acute attention to detail.

But what may seem like minor details to some are a big deal to others, particularly when the goal is for Copper Cellar and its fellow restaurants to be known for its steaks, fillets and burgers. The details matter—the marbling, size and uniformity of a cut, the fact that the cow can’t be more than 2 years old, that is must be black and that it’s processed in a lower stress environment so the meat isn’t too tough. These things add up, which is why Bob Ross, director of purchasing and a member for the Copper family since its inception, handles relationships with suppliers personally.

“We don’t go through a middleman. We work with suppliers directly,” Bob says. “I buy from Creekstone Farms in Kansas, and from Omaha, Nebraska—mostly Midwest cattle. It’s the same for seafood. I go out on the boats and go straight to the person who catches the fish.”

One of those people is Jim Wilson, a fisherman in Alaska who provides fresh sockeye from Yakutat. What he catches on Sunday gets shipped on Monday from Anchorage to Seattle, then from Seattle to Nashville. The truck pulls up to the commissary Wednesday morning, where the fish is filleted for dinner in Copper restaurants by Thursday. It’s the same scenarios for scallops from Boston, red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico and lobster from Maine.

“We don’t buy our seafood from someone in Atlanta who bought it from someone in Boston. We get it from Boston,” Mike says. “I’m not afraid to put our quality up to anyone’s standards. Doesn’t matter where. We’re a cut above.”

In the butcher shop at the commissary are trained, experienced meat cutters who process the daily deliveries to be trucked to area restaurants. On any given day, with national holidays and football seasons to consider, the meat cutters can process upwards of 6,000 pieces. Never mind the prep work going on in the rest of the building, where desserts and sauces are being made in bulk, fresh and ready for that week’s meals. The focus, as always, is quality, and you can’t have quality without consistency, even down to the salad dressing.

“We do all the base products here. The salads may be all different at the restaurants, but if you get blue cheese dressing at one, it will be the same at the others,” says Joe Krewson, a meat cutter at the commissary for the last 10 years. “Most people don’t know what goes on here.”

The spoils aren’t squandered either. When prime steaks and other cuts of certified Angus beef get trimmed, nothing is wasted. Those yummy bits roll right into the variety of sausages made at the commissary. Knowing where the food comes from offers an extra layer of comfort and satisfaction.

“If you buy pre-cut steaks, how do I know what they’re doing? How they’re controlling the aging? I’d rather use everything and not throw the trimmings away,” Bob says.

To work in Copper family management, a higher level of training is required. New hires suit up and spend several days shadowing butchers, bakers and tagging along with those who make deliveries. This way everyone knows what’s required to keep standards high and quality consistent, a worthwhile effort since the butcher shop gets federally inspected on a daily basis.

Why go to all the extra trouble, one might ask, when Copper restaurants were already doing just fine?

“I just always want to serve the best. It’s been a challenge to serve good food. A lot of people think I’m a control freak,” Mike says, laughing. “I am.”