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Family is the secret ingredient to the success of restaurateurs Pat and Gina Neely. Like many hopeful entrepreneurs, the Neelys began with a small family-owned business, but they eventually turned it into a seven-figure dream come true. The Memphis-based couple has built their love for food and cooking into a growing chain of barbecue restaurants, a popular line of cookbooks and a top-rated TV show on the Food Network, “Down Home With the Neelys.”

The Neelys opened their first restaurant in 1988. It started out with Pat and his brother. Pat learned about the business by working for his uncle as a teenager, and by working for McDonald's after he graduated from college.

He met Gina for the second time at his 10-year high school reunion. The two had gone to the same high school, but had never known each other very well. Shortly after the reunion, they began dating and got married. Once they began having children (two daughters), Gina began working at the restaurant.

“It was hard for us to get time off at the same time and take vacations,” Pat said. “We thought, hey, maybe if we work together, we can attend events with our children and be more involved in their lives,” When Gina, who previously had worked in the banking industry, came into the restaurant, and she bought a fresh perspective to customer service, catering and administration.

As an outsider in the restaurant business, Gina had first underestimated how much hard work was involved. “If you're thinking about going into the restaurant industry, be very sure that's the industry you want to be in,” she said. “The first two weeks, my back and my feet were killing me. I was used to sitting at a desk. Being on my feet and walking around all day was a huge adjustment for me.” 

Though the economy remains unsteady, the food industry is a major provider of jobs. According to the National Restaurant Association, the industry is projected to reach $632 billion in sales in 2012. It is expected to employ 12.9 million people in 2012, about 10 percent of the United States population. Job growth within the restaurant industry is expected to increase by 2.3 percent, while United States employment growth across all industries is only expected to grow about 1.3 percent. Currently, Pat and Gina employ nearly 100 people who work in their daily operations, and many more who work as contractors, and in catering and special events.

Jumping into a business with family or a business partner has its risks, but Pat Neely said the risks and hard work are worth it in the end. He advises existing businesses and startups to have a solid strategy in place. “You have to put out budgets and sales projections and find out what it’s going to take for you to succeed. In the restaurant business you need to know your food cost percentages, “ Pat said. “What percentage of your sales is going to be allocated for food? How much is your rent? Typically, I like the rent to fall around 7 to 10 percent.

“If you don't know your numbers, it doesn't matter if you're making $400,000 per month. If you're spending $380,000 per month, you're more than likely going to be in trouble,” he said.

Gina advises aspiring restaurant owners and all business owners to learn as much as they can before getting started. “Work in a place as an apprentice and try to learn the trade,” she said. “See how it works, and read about the technology and better ways to do things. You have to have the passion for it.”

With half of all marriages ending in divorce, Pat and Gina are commonly asked how they work long hours, travel and take care of their family together. Pat advises men who work with their wives to be quiet and listen. “If you're going to work with your spouse, check your ego at the door,” he said. “I've always respected Gina's opinion. If you have a ego or a huge chip on your shoulder, then you're not going to be successful working with your spouse. As much as we love each other, if it ever started to affect our marriage, we would quit working together.”

Gina said if you're going to work with family, you have to be a businessperson at work first and put all of your personal feelings aside. “You want to find out each family member’s strengths and weaknesses. Place people in jobs they are good at, never mind whether they are older or younger. Don't allow yourself to be emotionally entangled.”

In 2011, Pat and Gina Neely began growing their Southern-style barbecue restaurant business by adding a location in New York City, Neely's Barbecue Parlor, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The booming business and standing-room-only crowds have the Neelys considering more expansion for their restaurants and their brand. The New York location averages about 4500 square feet, with seating for about 200 customers. The Neelys’ other locations include restaurants on the east and west sides of Memphis, a larger restaurant in Nashville, and a mini store in the Nashville Airport that sells the couple’s signature sauces.

The Neelys plan to continue to expand. They serve on the boards of Memphis area business associations, participate in trade shows and provide food for sports events in Memphis. The couple sells its homemade barbecue sauce online, and even ships some food items on dry ice to homes across the United States. Pat and Gina are currently developing a line of cookware for retail sales. The couple travels the country as entertainers and cooks, while scouting for more locations for future restaurants.

For more information, please visit: www.ginaandpat.com


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