by Amy Rosenberg
Special to the Tri-State Defender
The Neely name is arguably more famous than any other in the legendary Memphis barbecue scene. Yet, more valuable to brothers Tony, Gaelin, Mark and Patrick than any secret sauce or spice rub is a family bond that extends far beyond the kitchen.
|For the Neelys, family is serious business. Pictured: Tony, Mamma, Jackie, Gaelin and Mark. (Courtesy photo)|
Family is the thread that ties the Neelys’ restaurants together, and family, not fame, is what they are most thankful for this holiday season.
Even with barbecue businesses thriving in Memphis, Nashville and New York City and the family’s treasured recipes finding their way into homes all across America by way of The Food Network, the Neelys still see the holidays as a time for reflection, focusing on the long journey that has brought them so much to be thankful for.
It was 1988 when the Neely men decided to take all they had learned from their uncle, Jim Neely of Neely’s Interstate Barbecue, and go into the restaurant business for themselves. However, that first Neely’s Barbecue restaurant was less of a dream come true, they say, and more of a necessity.
“I’ll never forget my mother telling me she was living in a tiny apartment, and she said, ‘I don’t even have a decent place to host Thanksgiving,’” Tony recalled. “That bothered us, bothered all of us.”
Mamma Neely was a widow at the time with young children at home, and barbecue was the best way Tony and his brothers knew how to help her. From the very start, family has always been at the heart of every recipe that has come from the Neelys’ kitchen.
“It was just ingrained in us – being family oriented and working hard. It’s in the Neelys’ blood,” Tony said.
Step foot into any Neely’s BBQ restaurant, and the writing is on the walls.
Photos that adorn dining room walls and greet hungry customers in takeout lines depict a family history full of entrepreneurs dating back to the 1930s with Grandfather Neely’s trucking company. They’re joined, of course, by classic images of all six of Mamma Neely’s children – five boys; Gaelin, Mark, Patrick, Tony and Christopher and a girl, Jackie – as well as numerous newspaper articles documenting the rise of Neely’s from a simple local eatery to a major national brand.
Local fame didn’t take long to achieve. The first Neely’s restaurant opened to hungry Memphians in the medical district in 1988. It was the only spot to grab a bite in the entire area at the time, so business boomed immediately.
“It was crazy,” Gaelin recalled. “There were no eateries, but there was a customer base. It was like a goldmine. We opened our doors and it would be standing room only.”
The goldmine continued to grow, and the next stop for Neely’s was a larger location in the Midtown area that still packs in lunch and dinner crowds at 670 Jefferson. A second store opened later at 5700 Mt. Moriah, followed by two Nashville locations, a freestanding store and one at the airport. Add to that two Food Network programs featuring Pat and Gina, as well as the recently opened Neely’s BBQ Parlor in New York City and a steady stream of Internet sales, and it’s easy to understand why Mamma Neely says her family’s journey has been nothing short of amazing.
“In a million years, I never thought it would be like this,” she said. “I always felt they’d be great one day, but I didn’t know at what. And I never would have expected it to be like this.”
Admittedly overwhelmed by what has become of the Neely name, Mamma Neely is quick to point out that her family’s success is not a surprise.
“All we did was work hard and stay together,” she added, “and that’s the key to the success of it all – loving one another, working hard and being caring and concerned about one another.”
Mamma Neely’s only advice to her sons has been to treat people right, something her late husband instilled in the children at a young age. He also preached the importance of being close, which they are to this day, and the value of working hard as a family.
“I remember on Saturdays, mom would be inside doing the housework, and we’d be in the yard doing yard work,” Gaelin said. “I remember not having a problem with it. We liked being together, working together.”
As children and adults, working together has always been the Neely way. Together, they made it possible for Mamma Neely to retire early and ensure she always has a proper place to host holiday meals.
“We just wanted to do right by the name and make our father proud and our Uncle Jim, make our mother proud,” Tony said.
And though they may be spread far and wide as Pat and Gina are on their book tour, the Neely’s will celebrate the holiday season, their thriving business and a bright future just as they always have – as a family.
“I’m grateful that God has given me another year of health to see the greatness of this family,” Mamma Neely said.
“I believe the best is yet to come.”