Opening with charity

Puleo’s raises $3,100 for United Way on Family and Friends day

The Friends and Family VIP night at the new Puleo’s Grill in Alcoa brought out 310 people and raised $3,100 for United Way.

Owner Steve Puleo and restaurant CEO Gale Huneycutt shared their thoughts on their first week in Blount County.

Puleo said he has had his eye on the location, which was most recently Up the Creek in Springbrook Park, for some time. “I felt it was a perfect spot. Everybody going to the mountains goes right by here, not to mention those living in Blount County,” he said.

Puleo said it was eye-opening last week as he spoke to guests as many of them thanked him for opening so they no longer have to drive to West Knoxville or Strawberry Plains to eat at his restaurant.

The restaurant founder said the challenge for him is getting chefs and kitchen staff up to speed to execute the Puleo system where the food is all made from scratch. “The biggest challenge is keeping that essence of what we invented and keeping it pure and teaching it to all the other chefs as we grow,” he said.

Huneycutt said the restaurant and its associates want to be a good corporate citizens. “One of things that attracted us to this area is how invested the community is in their schools and their government and how their responsible corporate citizens give back to the community,” Huneycutt said. “What we would like to be is obviously a really great restaurant, but also one that is a good corporate citizen.”

To demonstrate that commitment, they hosted a VIP Friends and Family night on March 28 and charged customers $10 each to come to the restaurant and eat as the servers, chefs and hosts got in some hands-on practice. The proceeds were pledged to United Way and will be donated later this month.

“We want to continue to be involved in helping the county reach its initiatives in terms of quality of schools and being a good place to live,” Huneycutt said.

Puleo said a concern he has is that as restaurants grow, they tend to cut corners. “They lose their identity of who they originally were,” he said. “That is one of our big challenges. We eyed that needle and are still here. Now we’re actually hiring people in an environment where everyone is laying off. We give that credit to our guests.”

Huneycutt said business has been good, and the community has received Puleo’s well because of the restaurant’s high standards.

“We’ve maintained our commitment to using fresh quality ingredients and offering superior quality at a very affordable price,” he said. “People appreciate the freshness and commitment to quality food and appreciate the value and price point on the menu, particularly in these soft economic times.”

Puleo said the restaurant has lowered prices without cutting corners. “I’m really stubborn about food quality. That is what is helping us get through this time,” he said.

Puleo and Huneycutt said the Family Value Dinners and the Express Lunch menus give individuals and families more value.

“I saw lots of people with young children, and they appreciate that,” he said. “Families with young children are really struggling to stick to a budget to go out and eat, and we hope we provide an opportunity for them to enjoy a good meal.”

Huneycutt said there about 40 items under $10 on the menu, including Express Lunch/Early Bird menu items that are a smaller portion and offer a lower price point. The Express Lunch/Early Bird menu runs from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday - Thursday and 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

“It’s a little more affordable. It’s the same quality food with a little smaller portions and lower price points,” he said.

Puleo said customers are telling him they enjoy the restaurant’s signature dishes such as shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, Ahi Tuna and lasagna as well as comfort foods like chicken tenders, hamburgers and turkey and dressing. The food is just a part of the casual atmosphere Puleo said he and his staff try to create. “It’s our job to join them, and of course provide what we hope to be an excellent meal. It’s all about execution,” he said.

A restaurant can have the best menu, ingredients and chef and that isn’t enough. “It doesn’t mean a thing if the food isn’t excellent,” Puleo said. “That’s why I don’t get carried away with awards we’ve won. It means nothing if the experience isn’t good.”

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