Max Stephenson of Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant
Since 1998, Puckett’s Gro. & Restaurant has made its name on live local music, southern comfort staples, and the friendly faces that welcome guests to the family-owned eatery and music venue. Max Stephenson is one of those faces.
Six years ago, Stephenson started out as a cook; today he is one of the most recognized personalities in downtown Franklin. As general manager of the Puckett’s Franklin location on Fourth Ave., South, he is often one of the first voices to greet the swarms of visitors who flock to America’s Favorite Main Street.
“The first time I heard about Puckett’s was when I interviewed for the position,” Stephenson said. “I left the interview thinking I did not get the job.I still believe he hired me just because he knew I needed the job, and not because I impressed him— but that is just the kind of man Andy Marshall is.”
Max became a part of the Puckett’s family in 2007 when he came on board to help in the kitchen. Splitting his time between Leiper’s Fork and Franklin—and taking on any role needed—he quickly demonstrated some invaluable assets: his breadth of industry knowledge and a dedicated work ethic.
Since those days, Stephenson has seen the Puckett’s family of restaurants grow from a grocery store out in the country to include Puckett’s Gro. & Restaurant locations in three different counties, Puckett’s Boat House in downtown Franklin, and Puckett’s Trolley, the mobile eatery.
He says the core values remain the same among the various ventures, including a community-centered environment and home-cooked dishes that he can take pride in.
“Back then, it was just the three of us: Andy, Claire [Marshall Crowell, director of operations] and myself,” Stephenson said. “I can say without hesitation, this is the best company I have every worked for. It is rare to see an owner get physically involved, but with the Marshall family everyone dives in. They make you a part of the family, and it is so rewarding to work with them.”
Stephenson says that outside of the ingenious culinary skills and the amazing talent he’s witnessed at Puckett’s (on-stage names include Faith Hill, Jonathan Kane, Steve Cropper, Amy Grant, and more), what he enjoys most about his job are the people he works with and those friends he’s met along the way.
“Once I had a lady ask me if any famous people ever came to Puckett’s,” he said. “I pointed to the lady sitting behind her and said does Sheryl Crow count?”
“The people are what make Puckett’s so special,” Stephenson said. “There is a genuineness at Puckett’s that you can’t get anywhere else. I get to come to work as a restaurant manager wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt, and there is just something so egalitarian about that.”
Stephenson has taken on the role of coaching and guiding the employees around him, driving home the importance of things like uncommon service and consistency. His 30-plus years of industry experience qualifies him for that role, but he’s also been the innovator behind some of Puckett’s signature menu items like Bubba’s Benedict and the Country Club.
“I love the culinary aspect of my job,” he said. “I like coming up with different combinations, and giving them a Puckett’s twist.”
A couple of months ago, Stephenson was offered the general manager position at the newest Puckett’s location, on the square in downtown Columbia. Since he lives in Mount Pleasant, and makes the 45-minute commute every day, it seemed like a natural transition. But it didn’t turn out that way.
“Even though I live closer to Columbia, Franklin has become my home,” Stephenson said. “I am constantly grateful for Franklin, and amazed at how a group of people have helped lead and shape this community into something truly special.”
Stephenson asked to remain the manager in Franklin, but agreed to be the interim manger for the new location. He currently splits his time between the two.
A Memphis native, Max moved with his family to Middle Tennessee when he was a senior in high school. After two years at Columbia State, he moved back to Memphis to finish college and got a job waiting tables. Stephenson quickly worked his way from server to head server, then assistant manager to general manager.
“I have been in the restaurant industry ever since,” he said. “I love the fast pace of this business, and that it requires quick decision-making skills.”
After he moved to Orlando to open and manage a fine-dining steak house, Stephenson says he started to miss the South and wanted to be closer to his parents. He moved back to Middle Tennessee in 2004 and opened his own restaurant in Columbia.
“I opened right when the economy starting falling, and had to close nine months after opening,” Stephenson said. “Ironically enough, the very day I closed my restaurant I saw an article in the paper about Puckett’s.”
Stephenson says that fateful day has shaped the course of his life, and his career. And he couldn’t imagine loving his job any more than his does.
This is part of a series on merchants in downtown Franklin, Tenn. To read more, visit www.downtownfranklintn.com/facesoffranklin.
Posted on: 8/14/2013