Since the late 1990s Chuck Pruett has been a major force in reshaping the retail food scene in our community. ℹ️ Pruett’s Signal Mountain Market is the latest link in the fascinating story of his influence on developing closer relationships between us, as consumers of food and the sources of our food. Since the first Greenlife Grocery opened on Hixson Pike in North Chattanooga in 1999, Chuck has developed the idea of “real food”—a measure of how close we are to our food sources. A huge gap exists, for example, between meat grown and processed in gigantic corporate facilities far away and poultry, beef, and pork grown locally—where grocer and supplier know one another. The smaller the gap between us and the origins of our food, the more “real” our food is.
The Pruett name goes back three generations. Chuck began working at his father’s market when he was 11 years old. Over the years he began to realize that there was a need for a closer connection between the traditional idea of “groceries” and “real food.” The concept for Greenlife Grocery began to take shape.
Bringing a solid idea into reality is no easy task and faces many obstacles. At the time, few grocery traditionalists thought the shopping public would care much about emphasizing the notion of “real food” as the banner of a full-sized grocery market. Chuck thought otherwise and travelled the community exploring the possibilities at the grassroots level. His confidence grew as he uncovered an existing and growing interest in his idea. Not so, in the world of finance.
For financial support, Chuck was standing alone. His next step required not only personal courage but a rock-solid faith in his idea. What to do? Chuck went whole hog! He mortgaged his home, maxed out credit cards—did whatever it took to open Greenlife Grocery.
Greenlife celebrated its grand opening on Hixson Pike in the summer of 1999. The idea caught on and 7 years later the market moved to a vastly expanded, “full of new ideas” Greenlife Grocery on Manufacturers Road. And it wasn’t just about groceries. The new Greenlife became a destination to spend some time shopping, and for families and friends to spend time together over lunch or a gelato. It was a community destination, a space for grocery shopping and friendly get togethers.
In 2010 Greenlife became Whole Foods and Chuck, knowing that his food philosophy was basically in good hands, found time to spend with his family, with little thought of getting back into the grocery world. He points out,“ At the time I wasn’t really interested in getting back into the business.”
But, ingrained interests have a way of resurfacing as do opportunities. Some years later, when his brothers decided to sell the Pruett’s store on Signal Mountain, Chuck was, once again, bitten by the grocery bug and bought the store. Always buzzing with ideas, he began laying the groundwork for a new store with new twists and the idea of creating a gathering place for members of the community that goes beyond just shopping for groceries. As Chuck says, “I want the store to be a part of the community, a presence that offers opportunities for people to get together and enjoy spending time with one another.”
The idea of “community” extends to departments within the store. The meat department at Pruett’s, for example, is really an old-fashioned neighborhood butcher shop residing in a modern market. The shop is run by Matt Commander—an artisan butcher who learned his trade literally from the hoof up in the world of the small slaughterhouse. There he learned the pathways from the anatomy of the whole animal to carefully crafted specialty cuts.
In the tradition of old-time shops, meats don’t come to Pruett’s in pieces pre-cut somewhere else. They arrive as whole, hindquarter, or forequarter selections from local and regional suppliers who work closely with Matt. His trained eye and expert technique carefully craft each cut. It may be surprising to learn that attention to detail—another “real food” aspect of the shop that even extends to hamburger and pork sausage. “Hamburger and sausage wouldn’t be themselves without fat, but fat isn’t just fat,” says Matt. “It’s the kind of fat that makes a difference.” As he prepares a beef hindquarter, for example, he knows where to find and separate out what’s called “steak fat” and sets it aside for hamburger. Steak fat contains much more meat flavor than other fats. The same thing applies to sausage fat, only the more flavorful pork caul fat enters the mix.
Dry-aged beef and special orders are specialties of the house. As one discerning customer reported “Our Christmas roast last year was a dry-aged prime rib roast from Pruett’s. The whole family said the same thing, ‘The best we have ever had!’
Seafood gets the same careful attention. Nothing, except shrimp, comes in frozen. Matt works closely with his supplier in Atlanta to assure that he keeps up-to-date on what and when to buy. Scallops are dry-packed—no shrinkage in one of these properly cooked delicacies.
Like all grocery stores, wine is on the shelves. But, unlike other stores there’s an important added twist…on Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays (after noon) the wine section in Aisle 4 becomes a wine shop. Bill Hull is on hand to offer advice on selecting wines.
Bill has a Level 2 certification in wine from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust in London. He also has 8 years of experience at The Vine, a highly regarded shop next to Whole Foods that served so many discerning customers in that Manufacturers Road complex for many years. The Vine included many organic and sustainably grown wines, and that tradition continues to be a component of the wine department at Pruett’s.
The selection at Pruett’s includes everyday, popular wine brands, as well as a number of smaller producers and a broad representation of many grape varietals. “We carry a number of wineries that you will not find in other grocery stores in Chattanooga. I look for good values and good quality— with the idea of introducing new wines to our customers,” says Bill. He particularly enjoys giving wine selection advice for a specific food pairing or when someone is looking for a special gift.
By the holidays, the finishing touches in the store will be complete. Visitors will find a sushi bar, hot food and salad bar, pizza and sandwich bar, coffee and juice bar, bakery and pastry bar—all with a vision of making “real food” a permanent fixture on Signal Mountain. All are welcome!
For more information visit Pruett’s Signal Mountain Market Facebook page.
210 Taft Hwy, Signal Mountain, Tennessee
A note from the Editor: This story happened to be Dick Morel’s last. He passed away in August of 2017. He will
be remembered well, and we at Chattanooga Magazine are thankful for his talents,
insight and dedication that he put towards our magazine and for our readers.
Photography by Clay Miller