All about service: John Coombs combines catering, breakfast in new restaurant

Chef John Coombs pauses for a moment in his kitchen at Value Gourmet in Maryville.

Photo by Jolanda Jansma

Chef John Coombs pauses for a moment in his kitchen at Value Gourmet in Maryville.

John Coombs is building his catering business on the buzz of a good cathead biscuit.

Coombs, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, owns Value Gourmet. The 27-year-old recently opened his business on East Broadway in the former Mountain Mud Coffee location.

To help underwrite his catering, he opted to open from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday to serve breakfast. His biscuits are his most popular item.

“Cathead biscuits - that’s definitely my signature. Too many people go to fast food restaurants and want a dollar biscuit and with my biscuit, you would have to eat three of theirs,” he said.

Coombs said his cathead biscuit is $1.99, “which is a pretty good deal for how big it is and you can get cheese and egg for 60 cents extra.”

The business owner said he had never heard the term “cathead biscuit” until he moved to Tennessee. “I’ve always made big biscuits. This one guy, he had an 18-wheeler tire dealer and he ordered two,” Coombs said. “He got to the end of driveway and said he was set for lunch. I’ve got a following of people who come every single day.”

Coombs said his breakfast menu is as simple as it can be. He offers biscuits, bacon, sausage and gravy. Customers also can add egg and cheese to their biscuits. “I have hash browns also. The idea is to be simple. There are so many people starting new restaurants that have 50 different things on the menu, and you waste more money than you are making,” he said.

Coombs grew up in New Albany, Miss., about 25 minutes west of Tupelo. “I moved here for Blackberry Farm after I graduated culinary school in December of 2006. We moved here in January of 2007.

Blackberry Farm is a good fit for him because it fills in experience he needed, Coombs said. “I had never had service experience in my resume, and Blackberry has been voted best service in country as far as hotels. I decided to stay in the front of the house, and I’ve been there two and half years,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about service, and I can train people about service and how to serve people.”

Coombs, who runs his breakfast restaurant in the mornings and caters in his off time from Blackberry, has been in business as a caterer about two months. The 27 year old said he got into the catering business because a friend of his was going to get another restaurant to cater her wedding. He took it as a personal challenge and told the bride-to-be he could do the job for the same money but with gourmet food. “I told her, ‘You don’t need sandwiches for your wedding. I can do a nicer setup.’ I spent a couple hundred dollars on a tasting and got the job. I found a kitchen, did her wedding, and now I will have done six more by the end of October.”

The entrepreneur said that one of his goals is to get his catering business going and use it as a springboard into the restaurant business. Then he got the opportunity to use the former Mountain Mud facility on East Broadway. “I got this space with a drive through and thought, ‘Why not do breakfast?’” he said.

Coombs said he was getting about three hours of sleep a night until he hired someone to come in late at night to do prep work for him. Coombs arrives at work early each morning and relieves the employee doing prep work.

Coombs said when speaking with catering clients, he tries to give them what they want. “I tell people that I don’t have a specialty. When I have a client who wants to meet, I’ll meet them and ask what they like. That’s the menu they get,” he said. “My idea is to customize the experience at a value level.”

Coombs has his business plan and admits he has lofty goals. He said his next step is to build his catering business until he can open a full-service sit-down restaurant.

“From there, every year I plan to open two restaurants, starting in my fourth year in business. On Nov. 25, 2011, I plan on opening my first restaurant. That will be my 30th birthday,” he said. “It’s a hefty goal but I’ve got great expectations for my life.”

Eventually Coombs wants to open restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City. “I’m going to accomplish my goals, then go to New York,” he said.

Coombs said he has learned how important good service is to a restaurant’s business.

“You can have amazing food and bad service, and no one is going to come back, but if you have good service and mediocre food, people will come back because the service is so good,” he said. “You relate the whole thing to service.”

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