I’m sitting in an Antioch strip mall, and Chef Ralph of Potato Mountain 615 is late. We’ve postponed this meet-up a handful of times now, and today looks like it might be another raincheck.
“1:30ish now guys,” a text from Ralph reads. “Slightly behind. Got 50 potatoes I had to get ready but I’ll be there. Sorry.”
At 1:40, I check the battery life on my recorder and take another look at the dashboard clock. He’s never early, he’s always late / First thing you learn is you always gotta wait. I wonder if I’m the first person to ever apply those lyrics to waiting for a loaded baked potato. As a diabetic, Lou Reed probably couldn’t eat baked potatoes, but I’d like to think he’d approve—or at the very least find it amusing that someone is about to make a potato deal in a parking lot.
For the uninitiated: Potato Mountain 615 is a local baked potato delivery and catering service run by Chef Ralph, the company’s CEO, executive chef, sole delivery driver, and relentless one-man marketing team. Here’s the gist of how PM615 works: spud-craving Nashvillians call, text, or DM Ralph (@PotatoMountain_615 on Instagram—there is no business line or website), who then delivers his signature loaded baked potatoes to you or your business, straight from his Altima.
This, however, is only the tip of the mountain, if you will. These aren’t normal baked potatoes, and Ralph is no normal chef. For $10 (or $12 for a couple of higher-end offerings) Potato Mountain serves head-sized baked potatoes, topped with heaping amounts of everything from Philly cheesesteak to chicken alfredo to taco-style ground beef. There are also breakfast potatoes, potatoes with mac and cheese, “soul food” potatoes with chicken and dressing, and, naturally, potatoes topped with Nashville hot chicken. Wendy’s, eat your heart out.
And while the potatoes are incredible—the Insta bio claims (perhaps not unjustly) they’re the best in the world—Potato Mountain’s success is as much the product of Chef Ralph’s infectious online persona as it is the cheese-laden chicken that drips over his potatoes like lava on a starchy Mount Vesuvius.
If you’re one of the nearly seven thousand people who follow Potato Mountain on Instagram, you probably know the shtick: Ralph posts videos and stories all day every day, letting Nashville know what and where he’s serving. There’s also this sort of candid camera bit he does in some videos, where he asks first-time customers—often mid-mouthful—if it’s the best baked potato they’ve ever had (the answer is always yes). But most notably, every video is accented by the Potato Mountain call to arms: “GET U 1 QUIT PLAYING.” The catchphrase is on the PM615 merch, people shout it at Ralph everywhere he goes, and his three-year-old daughter even says it.
Today, on a chilly fall afternoon in Antioch, I’ve decided to finally quit playing and get me one. More specifically, NATIVE photographer Zachary Gray and I are hopping in Ralph’s car for a day in the life of Potato Mountain. Here’s what we saw.
2 p.m., Top Chop Barber Shop, 50 potatoes left
Ralph finally pulls into the fire lane in front of Top Chop, hazards on. He grabs two massive insulated pizza bags, each filled with twenty-five baked potatoes (he declines help with carrying them), and sets up shop by the barbers’ break room. Top Chop is the biggest barbershop I’ve ever been to, with at least twenty-five chairs making a semicircle around the waiting area in the middle. Migos’ Culture II is blaring, and ESPN is on nearly all the TVs, which cover just about every inch of free wall space. Inexplicably, there’s one TV showing Friends reruns—I don’t question it.
Top Chop, Ralph explains, is one of his main hubs of business. It’s centrally located enough to where he can simply post he’s there and a good chunk of his Antioch clientele will show up. Plus, as Ralph and a few barbers explain, an operation like PM615 is ideal for hairdressers, who often don’t have time to grab a bite between appointments.
One of the first things I notice about Ralph: having a conversation with him is tough. It’s not that he’s not personable—as most of his online following can attest, he’s quite the opposite. He even describes himself as “a very, very people person.” It’s just that he is always taking orders and always posting.
“A regular shift, it’s eight hours,” Ralph explains while texting. “I’m probably on the phone at least half of that.”
But the phone is only half the battle, of course. A typical day begins with kitchen prep at 6 or 7 a.m., which gets Ralph out the door around lunchtime with thirty to fifty potatoes. He loads those up, sells them, then goes back home to prep more during rush hour. Around 6 p.m., he’s back out with another thirty to fifty, and he’ll keep delivering until he sells out or is too exhausted to drive.
Between constant phone calls—almost always answered with “Where ya at?” or “Potato Mountain 615”—Ralph gives me a cajun chicken and shrimp potato, one of three flavors in this batch of fifty (there’s also Philly cheesesteak and chicken alfredo, two of his best sellers). I grab a plastic fork and dig in.
Eating one of these things is a beautiful exercise in gluttony. As one customer tells me later that afternoon, “Get you one if you feel like indulging in sin.” They’re every bit as rich and decadent as they appear, with the cheese, butter, and marinated chicken melting in your mouth like a hearty stew. But nothing—including the potato—is dry or overcooked, and Ralph seasons each variety so that some acidity and spice punch through that mountain of itis-inducing goodness. I eat mine down to the skin, but not before Ralph catches me on Insta. “It’s his first time,” Ralph yells to the camera as I chew. “He can’t even talk! GET U 1 QUIT PLAYING!”
Now that I’m ready for a nap, Ralph fields a steady stream of orders while explaining how he got into the potato business. He grew up in Shelby Park (“East Nashville, man, that’s where my heart is at”), and up until he was eighteen, he thought he was going to play sports for a living (“typical football player, basketball player, baseball player,” he says with a sigh).
When he realized the majors weren’t calling anytime soon, he moved out to Antioch, where he took a few kitchen gigs at chains like Olive Garden and O’Charley’s. He also laid concrete with his dad’s construction company, but—like Lou Reed—Ralph is diabetic, which makes manual labor a challenge (ironically, it also keeps him from indulging in his product too often). At twenty-two, he had his first of three children. That’s when he realized things needed to change.
“It gave me a sense of like, What am I going to do now? I got to do something, I got to take care of this kid,” he explains. “I had a conversation with my mom, and she said, ‘What do you love to do?’ And we both knew: cook. That was it.”
Dietary restrictions aside, potatoes are Ralph’s favorite food. “So I just figured, man, I will cook, and everything I cook, I’ll put on top of potatoes.” He experimented with a few recipes, polled his friends and family on what they’d like to see on top of a potato, and started loading loaded potatoes into his car.
That was two years ago. In the time since, he’s severed ties with a former business partner (the guy left and started selling suspiciously familiar potatoes), sold hundreds—if not thousands—of potatoes, and become a kind of weird local folk hero. For example, he tells me about going to pinball bar No Quarter, where he was greeted with cheers and sold fifty potatoes in five minutes; or how he regularly delivers sixty potatoes to surgeons and nurses at Vanderbilt. There was even a time when—after Ralph got into a minor wreck mid-delivery—the two cops filing the report got some potatoes. Oh, and the customers Ralph was en route to see? They came to the wreck site to pick up their order.
“That’s how bad they wanted their potatoes!” he explains. “No lie, I cannot make this up!”
3 p.m., Salon Suites at The Crossings, 40 (ish) potatoes left
After about an hour at Top Chop and ten or so potatoes sold (Ralph isn’t concerned with the exact number), we pack up and go to our second destination of the day, Salon Suites at The Crossings. If you’ve never been, Salon Suites is this massive, warehouse-style building that houses dozens of beauty and cosmetics businesses. The idea is that you can get highlights, a mani-pedi, and makeup done all in one place, and from what I can tell, the idea is working.
Ralph does well at Top Chop, but he thrives at Salon Suites, the barbershop’s hyper-feminine inverse. As soon as we step into the building, he’s off, scurrying through assorted nail salons and beauty shops like a carb-carrying Santa Claus. And, much like Kris Kringle, everyone is unanimously ecstatic to see him. “I’m gonna be on my elliptical later cussing him out!” says Kenya Hisun, repeat customer and owner-operator of Flawless Faces Makeup & Photography Studio. “Good shit!” says another satisfied customer. “He seasoned the hell out of the alfredo,” says yet another. In one of the day’s more surreal moments, we weigh two potatoes on a beauty salon scale and get the message, “o_LD.” We’ve broken the scale.
“When they weigh a potato up, that’s how you know it’s real! We broke the machine!” Ralph says to his Instagram followers.
By the time it’s all said and done, Ralph sells about twenty-five potatoes at Salon Suites. As we’re moving the bag—now we’re down to just one—back to the car, I ask why he thinks people are always so happy to see him (aside from the fact he’s usually carrying ten pounds of deliciousness).
“I enjoy making people laugh and making people smile,” he explains. “And then when I give them the potato, I believe in the potato so much that I talk shit about the potato.” He starts to chuckle. “And it makes them laugh, and it gets them into it.”
4:30 p.m., 20 potatoes left, Greater Antioch Area
To unload these last twenty potatoes, we’re going to do what Ralph does best: straight delivery. We weave through a series of Antioch back roads (Ralph never uses a GPS) and hit a handful of apartments, houses, and assorted strip malls. It’s mainly kids eating before TSU’s homecoming, which Ralph plans to visit during his second shift. Then we’re off to a BP to see a mother and daughter, then to Kroger, where a construction worker sheepishly doubles his order from one to two (!) chicken alfredos at the last minute.
We make one more sale at a different gas station—Ralph goes in and gives everyone there his card, naturally—and like that, we’re out. The sun is going down, Friday rush hour is about to tighten its grip around the city, and Ralph is ready to go home and do it all over again, into the wee hours of the morning.
6 p.m., Mountain View Road, 0 potatoes left
On the drive back to Top Chop, I notice a bag of pee wee footballs in the floorboard—Ralph is his son’s biggest cheerleader (“He’s damn good”) and never misses one of his practices (“If anyone wants a potato at that time, pull up at football practice—where I’m at—and get you a potato!”).
We talk about plans for Potato Mountain’s future—a “hype” food truck complete with live music and dancing, adding more staff, new recipes, and even tours around the country. Ralph envisions a Potato Mountain 901 in Memphis or a Potato Mountain 404 in Atlanta. He hopes “GET U 1 QUIT PLAYING” will be on the signs and to-go cups of Potato Mountain franchises around the country. If all goes according to plan, Chef Ralph will one day be the Colonel Sanders of baked potatoes.
We pull up to Top Chop, and I realize this is what the early mornings, late nights, and endless hustling is all about. Ralph is building an empire—albeit an empire built on chicken alfredo—one delivery, post, and hour in the kitchen at a time. Sure, it’s a little jokey, and sure, he’s not going to win a James Beard nod anytime soon, but that’s not the point. The point is leaving something behind, something that his children and grandchildren can inherit and grow for generations.
“I feel like I’m building a legacy right now,” Ralph explains from the parking lot—the same one I sat in earlier today when I got the “1:30ish” text. “Some days I could be tired, or some days I might not want to do anything. But you know, when I look at it, it’s like, ‘Man, I’ve started something. This is what I started. I can’t run from it now. I gotta keep going.’ When it’s time for me to sit down and take a break, that’s when I’m going to sit down and take a break.”
Maybe that break will come someday, but right now, there’s potatoes to make—and a whole lot of people who need to quit playing.
Potato Mountain 615 accepts orders via Instagram (@PotatoMountain_615) and phone (615.506.5162).