Despite mixed reviews from critics and bloggers, the restaurant has been consistently packed and the Neelys, who partnered with Merchants Hospitality Inc.—a restaurant management company with 10 other properties—seem undaunted by their first foray into business north of the Mason-Dixon Line. “We were approached by various organizations about doing restaurants in different cities,” Pat says. “But it had to be the right fit. Our partners here fit like a glove. From the top to the bottom, they are very passionate about everything from the décor to the quality of the food.” The Neelys have spent a lot of time in New York, where Food Network is based, and Pat, who went to work at his uncle Jim’s barbecue restaurant at 15 years old, brings a seasoned veteran’s confidence and his infectious passion to the process.
The Neely’s 220-seat, bi-level space is a long way from Pat’s original foray into business—a small shop in Memphis with a few tables and chairs and one barbecue pit launched with three of his brothers and $20,000 borrowed from their 94-year-old grandmother. The business had grown and was thriving by the time Gina and Pat were discovered at their Nashville location during a shoot for another Food Network show, Road Tasted with Bobby and Jamie Deen, sons of food star Paula Deen. “I always tell people we didn’t go looking for television,” says Pat. “Television found us.”
With their first cookbook reaching No. 8 on The New York Times Best Sellers list, the Neelys are preparing to embark on a 16-city tour to promote their just-released second book, The Neelys’ Celebration Cookbook: Down-Home Meals for Every Occasion, and they are reflecting on the blessings and challenges of their success. “You have to be ready for the opportunity,” says Gina. “Oftentimes we’ll want [something], but we don’t really want to do the work that it takes to have it. You can want it, want it, want it, but you’ve got to work!” The Neelys insist that their true power is rooted in two simple things: love (for each other, God, and what they do), and a work ethic that never quits. As restaurateurs for more than 20 years, they say these keys to their success existed long before anyone outside of their hometown of Memphis ever heard of them, and are what keep them grounded now that seemingly everyone has.
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