Kelly Johnson Leads the Effort To Rebuild Gatlinburg’s Alamo Steakhouse

The Alamo in Gatlinburg was one of several restaurants lost in the sudden and devastating wildfires that swept through the Smokies in Nov. 2016. The Alamo’s tenacious owner, Kelly Johnson, wasted no time in rallying her employees to get rebuilding efforts underway. We spoke with Kelly, second-generation restaurateur and partner in the Johnson Family of Restaurants, about those efforts and how proper planning helped soften the blow of the loss to the business and its employees.

KaTom: The Alamo was one of several restaurants lost in November’s fires, but not every owner chose to rebuild. Was there ever any question about whether you’d rebuild The Alamo in Gatlinburg?

Kelly Johnson: Never. Not for a second. We found out for certain that the Alamo had burned at about 2:30 in the morning. When we arrived at work the next morning at 8 or 9, we were already discussing it. There was never even a discussion about there being a discussion about whether we should rebuild.

K: Has anything surprised you about the early stages of this rebuilding process? What are some of the things that you’ve learned so far?

KJ: Honestly, there’s not been a ton of surprises as of yet, but we’re just starting the planning process. There are some crazy things, facts about how fire works. Fire can destroy a fireproof safe. I learned that. It will burn a fireproof safe and leave a box of chocolate mints unmelted right down the hall. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.

The Alamo burned for almost two weeks, on and off. They couldn’t get it to go out, which is sort of interesting. But as for the rebuilding process, we have our first rebuilding approval planning commission in February. That will be interesting.

We had our first couple of employee meetings after the fire, and people immediately had ideas. The bartender said, “When you rebuild the bar, I’d really like you to do this, this, and this.” I thought that that was nice, that those people had taken some level of ownership on their own and they hadn’t just been working there, but they’d been thinking that it would be nice if they had certain things. That was kind of fun to see how many different employees had ideas for the rebuilding.

K: Can you give me an idea of some of the ideas that the employees did have?

KJ: We’re gonna change some things. First of all, it was a two-story restaurant, and that’s because it was a remodel of an old restaurant. When we remodeled it 18 years ago, it remained a two-story building. No restaurateur in their right mind would build a two-story building unless maybe they had two kitchens. It’s extremely taxing on servers to carry food and ice and drinks up and down the stairs. Being a server is a physically demanding job and adding a staircase to it is almost unreasonable. So first of all, we are not going to rebuild it with two stories. There’s an opportunity to fix some of the egregious wrongs of having taken over a previously existing restaurant.

K: I read in a news story that your father has always stressed the value of keeping good fire insurance.

KJ: He is an over-insured maniac. We have extensive insurance on every possible front.

K: What are some of the other ways that the Johnson family has prepared for incidents like this? What sort of advice would you have for restaurateurs who want to be ready for a disaster?

KJ: You cannot afford to not have all of the insurance you might need. Insurance is one of those things that you can trim away and cut down to the bare basics, you certainly can. And yet, if you can’t afford quality insurance, you have bigger problems. We were able to insure even our payroll, so we are continuing to pay every employee of the Alamo in Gatlinburg every week until they find employment – even hourly employees, even servers and their claimed tips. We are able to continue to pay them, and that is because we have an excellent catastrophe policy.

So instead of wrecking 40 people’s lives, our employees are able to keep their lives in balance as much as possible. In reality, there isn’t a ton of jobs available in the winter in Gatlinburg in a good year, and certainly not now. These people lost their second home, and they’re emotionally distraught. And yet they didn’t have to worry about bills. They still don’t have to worry about it. And that’s the value of that kind of insurance.

This was a trauma for all of us, but its certainly easier when you don’t have to worry about the financial aspects of it.

K: What can you tell us about the new concept you’re opening in Gatlinburg?

KJ: We’re building two new restaurants, and they do share a common kitchen, but they have two distinct menus. Often when my father and I think about a new restaurant we’d like to open, we think about the food that we want to be eating that we don’t feel is available locally.

We are opening a sub shop named “Joe and Pop’s Sub Shop,” and the reason for the “Joe” is that my children are James, Oscar, and Eloise. I wear a necklace with their initials and so it’s “JOE.” So my dad will say, “How is Joe?” which is a term for, “How are my grandkids?” They call him pop, so we decided to call it Joe and Pop’s Sub Shop. It’s going to be a better sub shop. Everything we do is going to be homemade, and the best quality. All of those things. You’re going to have subs, soups, unbelievable wings, Cincinnati chili, and things of this nature.

Then next to the sub shop will be Mama’s Chicken Kitchen. If you’re familiar with our Mama’s Farmhouse, we’ll call it “Mama’s Farmhouse Light,” colloquially. It’s the same fried chicken and those sides that everyone loves, but it’s not family style. It’s more of a meat-and-three type dine-in experience. People will be able to order take-out for fried chicken in the [Great Smoky Mountains National] Park. We didn’t feel that there was fried chicken available in Gatlinburg that we enjoyed.

K: Is there anything else you want our readers to know about the Alamo or about any of your restaurants?

KJ: We hope to reopen on October 1st, and we have a timeline for that. We have our fingers crossed to greet our loyal fall customers. We’re trying our very, very best. I hope they come back. I think that they’ll be pleased when they cross the bridge to The Alamo. I want it to look the same from the outside. I want it to be The Alamo. I don’t want it to be The Alamo 2.0.

The outside will make it look like its two stories, with the facade, but inside we’ll fix some of those old nagging seating issues that troubled the old restaurant. I feel like it will be the best of both worlds. It will feel like the Alamo that people grew to love as they approach it, but when they get inside they’ll have even better seating available to them. And we’re making the kitchen much larger so that we’ll be able to give even better service.

Tanner West
Tanner West

A dedicated festival-goer, Tanner West has seen more bands perform live in the middle of hay fields and city parks than most people have probably heard of. Raised on beans and taters, he recently renovated a home and three vintage sheds in the back woods of East Tennessee that serves as a quiet retreat for reading and ready base for hiking and camping trips. Despite being able to craft 500-word descriptions of restaurant equipment, Tanner is a man of few words who described the best meal he ever ate in one word: Coffee.

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