If you’re ever driving through Memphis, and you get a hankering for some genuine Southern barbecue, there’s no place that will fulfill that longing better than Jim and Barbara Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Q restaurant. Only a short drive from the freeway, Interstate has been in business for over 20 years, serving up some of the very best barbecue the country has to offer.
The Neely’s, who have also been driving Newell coaches for over 20 years, are vivid examples of the bold, entrepreneurial spirit that is characteristic of so many Newell owners.
There and back again
Born in Memphis, Jim moved to California in 1958. Propelled by a strong, extroverted personality, he pursued a career in life-insurance sales. This eventually took him back to Memphis in 1972, where he developed a chain of successful insurance agencies across the Southeast.
Then, in the late 70′s, his life took a new direction.
In 1979 Jim and Barbara’s son was discharged from the military with a medical disability. To help ease his transition to civilian life, Jim and Barbara purchased a small grocery store for him to run. Jim also sensed another opportunity. The delicious barbecue he remembered from his youth in Memphis had become nearly impossible to find. So in 1980, he added a barbecue pit and seating area to the grocery store.
‘They were wrong’
The store faced considerable challenges. It was located in a tough part of town where violence, drugs, and alcohol abuse were rampant. “Everyone told me I wouldn’t be able to make it,” Jim recalls. “But they were wrong.” Armed with a .38 caliber pistol and a billy club that told the rougher element he meant business, Jim took control of the neighborhood. He bought the lease on the bar next door and closed it. He soon closed the grocery as well and expanded the restaurant from 42 seats to its current capacity of 275. And as the restaurant’s success grew, the neighborhood was transformed. “Now, people come here after church on Sundays,” Jim says with pride.
The restaurant’s success benefitted the Neely family as well, eventually allowing Jim to retire from the insurance business.
‘The best barbecue in the land’
Over the years, Interstate Bar-B-Q has been heaped with accolades and awards. American Way magazine dubbed it “the best barbecue in the land.” People magazine rated it the second-best barbecue in the nation. And in 1995 the Memphis Business Journal named Interstate the Small Business of the Year. The presentation ceremony was bittersweet for Jim. It was held at the Peabody, a Memphis hotel that, when he was a boy in the segregated South, he would not have been allowed to enter.
23 years strong
Jim and Barbara joined the Newell family while attending the Family Motor Coaching Association Convention in Minot, North Dakota, in June 1990. The moment Jim and Barbara walked into the Newell display area, a show coach caught Jim’s eye, and the transaction for the Neely’s new coach was completed on the spot. The relationship that began there has spanned 23 years and several coaches. It continues strong to this day.