5 Star Stories: Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que

Published: Feb. 14, 2023 at 10:38 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The art of barbecue is about Memphis as you can get. And there are barbecue legends in this city who have used their knowledge to build empires while also helping their neighborhoods.

In honor of Black History Month and our ongoing quest to highlight the people, places and things that make us proud to call the Mid-South home, we’re showing you how Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que combines passion and family into a recipe for success.

As Big Jim Neely will tell you, “I’m the Neely that put the Neely in barbecue.” The 85 years young pit master is a Memphis barbecue icon, who has traveled the world and had amazing experiences.

“My wife and I started this over 40...right at 45 years now,” he explained, adding, “I done put barbecue on Air Force One for the president. I been to meetings at the Vice President Al Gore’s house. I must have over 25 hours of TV time on different channels, everybody with a camera.”

Not to mention magazine articles, too many accolades to name, and worldwide recognition, all because of the ‘que, and all started in 1979 right here on South Third Street in what was initially a little corner store called Interstate Grocery, “and I would make barbecue sandwiches,” described Neely of his first foray into selling barbecue.

But with a beer joint next door, it wasn’t the safest area for Neely to do business at that time. He recalled it took a lot of effort to clean up that corner. But once he was able to buy the whole building, including that beer joint, he was able to put a stop to the rowdiness that used happen in the parking lot on Friday and Saturday nights in particular.

But then came the issue of what to do with all that building. “The first thing I thought of, ‘What can I put in there?’ And when I grew up right up there on Lauderdale Street, right there in South Memphis, barbecue was a passion in Memphis. And it was my feeling, I would like to bring back that old barbecue taste that we had when I was a kid.”

And that’s exactly what he did, eventually expanding the corner business into a restaurant that can now seat well over 240 people while also helping family with their own dreams.

Chefs chop up some delicious BBQ at Neely's
Chefs chop up some delicious BBQ at Neely's(Action News 5)

“From here, I built a business that raised my nephews. They owned three restaurants at one time--two in Memphis, one in Nashville. I had a nephew in Phoenix. I went out (and) took my motor coach six weeks, got him going. Later on I had a nephew in Detroit, took my motor coach up there, stayed little while, got him going (and) stayed there until he had the grand opening. So, you know, it’s all about family,” Neely expressed.

Today in the Memphis-area, the restaurant on Third is now one of three Neely’s Interstate Barbecue locations: one in Southaven on Stateline Road that’s run by family, with the third on Winchester in Southeast Memphis that’s now run Neely’s son Ken and his family.

According to Ken, there are about 10 relatives working in the various Memphis-area family businesses, while exclaiming, “God is good!”

And the barbecue is still made with the same recipe for success, which began decades ago.

“And to this day, we’ll still operate with that same model. We cook, we put love into it. We watch the quality that goes out; we don’t put out any junk,” Ken boasted.

Lessons taught by the senior pitmaster himself. “I think the key to anything in food is the passion for what you are doing.” explained Big Jim. “You’ve got to live it, you got to feel it, and that’s what I’ve done ever since I been in this business,” he added.

Lessons that will likely last for generations to come. “I gave them the legacy to expand with. Gave them the knowledge, worked in the kitchen with them. It’s good to know that you put people on a track where they can make a living. A little Black boy from Lauderdale in South Memphis and a little Black girl from Foote Homes never dreamed or thought they would see America and the world the way we did,” Jim mused.

Meanwhile, Ken Neely and his wife Maylon are interested in partnering with organizations that feed and/or house the homeless.

For more information on that, you can reach Ken and Maylon Neely by calling (901) 624-6415. And find out more about Neely’s Interstate Barbecue by clicking here.

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