Depending on your perspective, Interstate Bar-B-Que is notable for a number of diverse reasons.
To many connoisseurs of chopped pork and beef, it offers the best tasting barbecue in Memphis, a city regarded by many as the barbecue capital of the world. To neighborhood residents and businesses, it's a perfect example of one man's successful urban renewal campaign. To family members, it has presented practically unlimited career opportunities,
But for the judges of Memphis Business Journal's 15th annual Small Business Awards, Jim Neely's 15-year-old barbecue restaurant at 2265 S. Third is simply one of the best small businesses in the area. Interstate Bar-B-Que was named Small Business of the Year in the category of 26-75 employees.
For Neely, the success of his restaurant couldn't be more of a surprise
"Everything you see here has been an accident,- says Neely with a sweep of his arm. Shortly before the noon-time rush, Neely surveys the main dining room that is decorated on one wall with photos of three generations of his family,. Photos of celebrities such as rockabilly artist Carl Perkins and blues singer Bobby 'Blue' Bland adorn the opposite wall.
Like many other aspects of Neely's life, the business that employs 42 people came about because of the founder's curiosity.
First To Put the Neely Nameon the Memphis BBQ Scene.
It all Started Here!
"We are the original..."
In 1978, I purchased Interstate Grocery at 2265 South 3rd Street, and in 1979, I purchased the property and then converted the store to Interstate BBQ Restaurant. This established the Neely name on the Memphis BBQ scene.
However, it wasn't long before we were expanding and creating what has become our world-famous reputation for the finest in BBQ!
In 1984, I opened the Jay Bee's BBQ in California.
In 1988, after working their way through high school, and a while after some college, my nephews, Pat and Tony decided they wanted to open a resaurant of ther own. I designed two BBQ pits for them and helped them open their first resaurant on Madison. For them, the rest is history, with their new food show.
In 2008, we celebrated thirty years of being in business. I now have a national reputation for great BBQ that has earned me a place on the travel channel weekly for the past three years.
-- Jim Neely
"If I was a cat I would not have lived long," says Neely, who then asks with a grin, "You know about curiosity and cats, don't you?"
His career as a respected restaurateur in Memphis has some of its roots in California. Although born in Memphis, Neely and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1958 as he pursued a career in the insurance industry. On his frequent return visits to his home town, Neely always had to satisfy his craving for Memphis barbecue.
When I was a kid, Memphis had good barbecue on every corner, especially in the black neighborhoods," recalls Neely.
The Neely family moved back to Memphis in 1972 and Jim Neely opened successful insurance agencies throughout the south. While headquartered in Memphis, he had offices in such cities as Nashville, St. Louis, New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
A Rough Neighborhood
He worked long hours and frequently didn't stop to grab a sandwich until 9 p.m. or later. Neely found it harder and harder to find a good Pork barbecue sandwich in the heart of the city in the late 1970's.
About this same time, one of Neely's sons had to have his spleen removed while in the military. The operation left the son disabled and with an uncertain future. To help his son after he was discharged, Neely bought an old grocery store at 2265 S. Third in 1979.
Not only would the grocery store provide his son with a job, Neely thought the store might provide himself with a way to supplement his income once he retired from the insurance business.
The store was run down and had become a place for a rough element to hang out, drink, take drugs and get in the occasional fight. Most people probably would never have imagined the store could become a prosperous business. And even though the stench from the store caused Neely and his wife to wear bandannas over their noses while they cleaned it, Neely saw something in the establishment that others didn't.
People asked me why I came to this location and I said to them, "It's not the land, it's the man," says Neely. "I had a vision for what this place could become.
These were rough days. While the Neely's cleaned up their new small business, they went ahead and cleaned out some of the more unwelcome people who were loitering around the business. With out getting specific, Neely notes he had to rely on a billy club and his 38 caliber pistol every once in a while to convince some of the more unsavory characters he was serious about reclaiming his corner of this commercial strip.
An Idea Is Born
Once the area was made safer, Neely wondered how he could make his grocery store stand apart from other neighborhood markets. He toyed with the idea of adding a beauty shop to the grocery store. Then, he remembered how difficult it was on occasions to get the barbecue he recalled so fondly from his youth. He also remembered a friend of his who operated a fine barbecue Joint in California.
He asked his friend in California if he could help him bring this barbecue restaurant idea to fruition. His friend said while he would not divulge the ingredients to the recipe for his barbecue sauce, he could help him with other aspects of the business.
"I told him I didn't want his sauce recipe, I just wanted to find out how to keep a fire going for hours without it going out," says Neely.
His friend showed Neely the tricks of the trade and Neely returned to Memphis. He built a special barbecue pit enabling him to cook his barbecue with indirect heat. Using a combination of natural gas and hickory wood, these special pits slowly cook the meat without a flame ever touching them.
"It cooks in a closed pit," says Neely. "It creates a vapor. With moisture that surrounds the meat and keeps the moisture in the meat and keeps it from drying out."
Using this method, Interstate Bar-B-Que cooks the meat for about five hours. Using two of the specially built pits, Neely can cook as many as 500 slabs of ribs at a time.
The Secret Sauce
Developing the sauce proved even more difficult than figuring out how to keep a fire burning. Since Neely didn't have some secret family recipe he could rely on, he basically started from scratch.
"I spent two and a half years talking to old people who had some good recipes and then I would try this and that and I came up with the recipe we use today."
It is a recipe that obviously works. Its success shows in not only the critical raves it has received, but in the continued success of the business as well.
Interstate was rated as the second-best barbecue in the nation by People magazine in 1989. Vogue magazine pronounced it the best commercial barbecue in Memphis. After a two-month search of numerous restaurants in Memphis, The Commercial Appeal named Interstate Bar-B-Que as the home of the best all-around pork barbecue sandwich in the city in 1989.
Until 1985, the combination grocery/restaurant seated about 40 people. In 1986, Neely knocked down a wall to give the eatery more room. In 1989, he had to get rid of the grocery store altogether to meet the demand for the barbecue. The restaurant could accommodate about 100 hungry customers until 1993, the year the business added another room so it can now seat 275. Early in 1994 Neely added a drive-through.
Over the years the restaurant has provided solid jobs for the Neely family. At the moment more than a dozen family members work there. About twenty years ago, Neely's nephews decided to go out on their own, opening two Neely's barbecue restaurants in town. Neely's brother now operates the restaurant in California where Neely first learned how to operate a barbecue pit.
"The reason we have succeeded is because of our quality and customer satisfaction and trying to be just a little bit better. I couldn't have made it without my wife or my customers. That's why I want to say, 'Thanks Memphis.'"