By Ginna Parsons
TUPELO – For more than five years, Jason Steele was known for the homemade plate lunches that came out of Endville General Store he operated in Pontotoc County.
“I feel like I cut my teeth out there,” said Steele, 36.
When he decided to go bigger and open a 200-seat restaurant in west Tupelo, he knew better than to mess with a good thing.
In the evenings, he serves steaks, ribs, fish, chicken, salads and sandwiches, but at lunch, the majority of his business is the good old-fashioned meat and three.
“At lunch, 70 percent of our business is the buffet,” Steele said.
It’s easy to see why.
One day last week, the offerings were fried pork chops, chicken spaghetti, fried chicken tenders, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, fried okra, speckled butter beans and squash. Another day, the buffet featured French onion chicken, meatloaf, fried chicken tenders, fried okra, mashed potatoes, green beans, purple hull peas and boiled cabbage.
Chicken and dressing is always offered on Thursdays and catfish is on the buffet every Friday.
“My kitchen staff has got years and years of experience,” he said. “I do very little cooking. Our food is consistently good and there’s a reason for that. You’ve got to hire good people who have as much pride in the food as you do.”
Steele bought the property where Steele’s Dive is located – just west of the Coley Road/Cliff Gookin/Main Street/Highway 6 intersection – while he still had the store in Endville.
“I thought this was a good location and it’s turned out to be an excellent location,” he said. “People told me I was crazy, that this was off the beaten path, but there’s a lot more going on in west Tupelo than people think. You’ve got the airport, Ballard Park, the Buffalo Park and lots of neighborhoods in west Tupelo.”
All that traffic has rewarded Steele with a booming business. He figures he serves around 300 customers at lunch and that many at dinner toward the end of the week.
“So many people only have 30 minutes to eat and I knew they could run in here and get a plate lunch for $7 and eat in 15 or 20 minutes and be back at work,” he said. “I thought if we did an upscale mom-and-pop it would work and we’ve been busy since the day we opened the door.”
Music and more
Steele said it’s hard to describe his customer base.
“It’s as diverse as you can get,” he said. “You might see a group of guys from the Park Commission in here that have been cutting grass sitting next to guys in business suits. And we want it that way. We want everybody to be comfortable here.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, acoustic musicians play in a corner in the small indoor dining room. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, a band plays on the outdoor patio.
“They play anything from modern country to Southern rock,” Steele said. “And there’s no cover for the music. I don’t want to lose my reputation as a restaurant.”
At dinner, popular menu items are fried oysters, bone-in rib-eyes, prime rib and burgers.
“Believe it or not, we sell a ton of cheeseburgers,” he said.
One thing customers regularly comment on is the original artwork on the walls. It’s all done by Tupelo High School art students.
“Anna Garner, a THS art teacher, came up with the idea and I said OK,” Steele said. “When she started bringing the paintings in, I was astounded. I had no idea there was so much talent at the high school level.”
Another area where he receives kudos is the restaurant’s bathrooms, which have tile floors and walls, decorative mirrors and elevated basin sinks.
“We get complimented on them every day and that’s something that’s important to me and to a lot of customers,” he said. “When I had the store at Endville, I had this woman stop one day to use the restroom and she said, ‘I’m gonna have to come back here and eat. Anybody who keeps a bathroom this clean is bound to have a clean kitchen.’”