Puckett’s Boat House: J.T. Ward

For the past 25 years J.T. Ward and his extended family have been making the annual trip down to St. George Island, a barrier isle on the Gulf of Mexico that holds stretches of white sand beaches and no high-rise condos. One of his favorite memories, year after year, is enjoying a cooler of Apalachicola oysters down by the pier—a pastime that the Puckett’s Boat House general manager can now reenact with customers every day.

Ward helped launch the downtown Franklin eatery in June, offering locals a wide-ranging flavor of by-the-shore dishes that are reminiscent of the Florida coast and the Big Easy, plus Southern staples that draw from Owner Andy Marshall’s Nashville and Memphis roots.

“When Andy asked me to help open up the Boat House, I was excited to bring in some of those Gulf Coast flavors I’ve always loved,” Ward said. “I’ve enjoyed working with our team and the chefs to develop a menu that emphasizes the Southern food culture in a completely different way than Puckett’s Grocery. We’re really proud of it.”

Ward—who also helped the Marshall family open the Puckett’s Gro. & Restaurant in downtown Nashville and was previously the director of operations for a corporate restaurant chain—said he pitched the idea of fresh Apalachicola oysters when the Boat House concept was first being kicked around. Now the restaurant offers them raw, grilled and fried, and includes three doctored-up versions that include a spin on Oysters Rockefeller.

The Lynchburg, Tenn. native said he’s noticed that many of the customers link fond memories with the dishes, just like he does.

“It’s so funny to see just how excited people get that we offer Apalachicola oysters,” he said. “There’s something about our atmosphere and our food—and not just the oysters—that make people nostalgic for family vacations and good times.“

The Boat House offers a sweeping menu of Gulf seafood, Mississippi catfish, fresh shrimp, Louisiana Po Boys and more. The restaurant recently added a dozen new dishes to its popular grill, bar and bait shop menu, expanding on the steaming plates of seafood and tried-and-true Southern offerings that make the restaurant so unique.

The new options range from dinner entrees and sandwiches to home-baked desserts and small plates, like the made-from-scratch hushpuppies that Ward takes particular pride in.

“Our hushpuppies were a labor of love and took a lot of experimenting. I was really set on a unique recipe that made you come back for more,” he said. “From that recipe our chef Carlos [Garcia] came up with the shrimp and chipotle-cheese grits hushpuppies… and that’s something no one else is doing!

“I think people are pleasantly surprised when they find how extensive our menu is, and how much detail Carlos puts into each dish. We’ve made sure to stick to the mission of the Puckett’s family of restaurants… and that’s only delivering dishes with the highest quality of local and regional ingredients.”

This summer, the Boat House team had little more than six weeks to re-work the former Route 31 Café and Marcia’s Patisserie, hire employees and train them from the ground up. Ward had a hand in creating the Boat House ambiance, and said they took the nautical inspiration from its Harpeth River neighbor. The exposed beams and vintage advertising memorabilia add a bit of fisherman’s lair charm, and there’s even an upside-down boat floating on the ceiling of bait shop.

“There are so many unique components here, and that’s what makes us so special. We wanted to do something upbeat and fun here that catered to families and maintained a local flavor,” Ward said. “And I think we’ve really accomplished that.”

Sticking to the Puckett’s mission to be a community-centered environment, the Boat House has something to offer everyone: live Cajun and blues music on the weekends, a bar that’s already become a neighborhood spot, plus a separate “bait shop” that offers soft-serve ice cream, a full-line of espresso drinks and homemade pastries (including the best Key Lime Pie outside of its namesake!).
The restaurant launched a “Community Monday” initiative at the beginning of December, a three-part series that will donate 10 percent of the restaurant’s daily sales on Dec. 3, 10 and 17 to local organizations. The last leg of Community Monday is Monday, Dec. 17 and will benefit Mercy Community Healthcare (formerly Mercy Children’s Clinic).

“We wanted to give back to the community, something that is really important to Andy and everyone here. That’s one reason why I was so captured by Puckett’s. They genuinely care for their customers and for their employees, ” Ward said. “The Boat House doesn’t want to be just another restaurant, but truly a part of this community.”

For information about the Boat House, go to www.PuckettsBoatHouse.com or visit its location at 94 E. Main Street in downtown Franklin.

This is part of a series on merchants in Downtown Franklin that runs each week in the Williamson Herald.