Running a restaurant is more than just business for four Memphis families. It’s about upholding their family’s legacy through the food and hospitality they serve.
Huey’s, Corky’s, The Bar-B-Q Shop and The Arcade are four businesses with different menus and specialties, but the one thing they have in common is family. Each is a family-run business that is now run by the next generation — and in the case of The Arcade, the fourth generation.
Lauren Robinson, Ashley Robilio and Samantha Dean were all young girls when their father, Thomas Boggs, bought Huey’s in 1976. More than 40 years later, the three sisters run their father’s “world famous” burger restaurants. Today, there are nine Huey's restaurants — eight in Memphis and one in Southaven. A 10th restaurant is scheduled to open in Olive Branch in 2020.
“Our dad wanted to provide for his family,” Robilio said of her father and his work ethic.
“He was always entrepreneurial and had lots of ideas," Robinson added. "He knew that food was the way of the future and turned a bar with only 10% of the business in food into an award-winning burger restaurant.”
All three Boggs sisters grew up in the original Huey’s in Midtown.
“When we were little, we used to ride our bikes up the restaurant. We’d do our homework at the bar or play in the game room,” Robilio said. “At age 17, we began waiting tables. At that point, our dad was excited to see us in the business. He would hold our shifts when we got back in town from college.”
Both Robilio and Dean started working at Huey’s straight after college. Not originally sure that the restaurant industry was the right career path for her, Robinson worked for National Bank of Commerce and got her master's degree before her father convinced her to join the family business.
"My dad was very convincing," Robinson said. "Also, I was just ready for a change. Banking was not for me."
Robinson said one of the keys to running a family business is to make sure everyone has a role and one person is the final decision-maker. It was a succession plan their father started discussing with them as early as the 1990s.
Today, Robinson is the president and CEO, Robilio is the chief operating officer, and Dean is the marketing and special projects manager.
“We also have surrounded ourselves with non-family consultants and advisers,” Robilio said. “Look for people you trust. Our father was good at asking for help, and he taught us that as well.”
Sisters behind Huey's talk about the family business Memphis Commercial Appeal
Respect for each other is also key.
“Our goals and visions for the company are clear, and we are all rule followers,” Robinson said. “We always try to be fair and stay professional with each other.”
Separating work from personal issues is important.
“All three of us sisters can communicate with each other and not take it personally if we don’t agree,” Robilio said.
Before their father died in 2008, Boggs attended a forum on family business. There he learned the importance of having your children work somewhere else in a leadership role before joining the family business. At that point, he decided his younger children, Alex and Fulton Boggs, should work for someone else before joining the family business. It is a business plan the three sisters say they will keep in place for their own children when the time comes.
Alex just joined the family business this year, after working for other restaurant industry companies for the past seven years. Like his sisters, he is starting in the restaurants doing a management training program.
"It was really good for me to be able to broaden my knowledge beyond Huey's," Alex said. "I worked for a successful chain, opened a restaurant as well as worked as a consultant for U.S. Foods." Each of these experiences provided skills he hopes will add to his value as part of the Huey's management team.
Fulton decided not to join the family business. Instead, he is following his passion and pursuing a career as an artist.
As for the next generation, the future remains to be seen. Robilio says all their children have grown up in the restaurants and have worked part time for the family business. While they are all still young, a couple have expressed interest in joining the company. Robinson and Robilio both say they will encourage their kids to pursue their dreams, whether it's eventually to come back to Huey’s or not.
Corky’s Ribs & BBQ
Don Pelts founded Corky’s back in 1984. Today, this Memphis-based barbecue restaurant chain is not only being run by his children, but it is growing by leaps and bounds. Siblings Barry Pelts and Tricia Woodman run the business with Tricia’s husband, Andy. Over the past 21 years, Barry and Andy have grown the business from one flagship restaurant to where they are now.
Corky's currently has 10 locations: four in the Memphis area; one in Olive Branch; one in Brentwood; one in Pigeon Forge; two in Little Rock, Arkansas; and one in Katy, Texas.
Taking their family business to the next level, Pelts and Woodman have a goal to open at least 15 more stores across the Southeast in the coming years.
Both Pelts and Woodman joined the family business before their father passed away in 2013, taking over the reins of the business under his guidance.
“Our dad borrowed $50,000 from his parents to open Corky’s," Woodman said. "He told them that he was going to have the best quality food, best people and be there every day. He also told him if he failed, at least he would know he had done his best.”
Pelts and Woodman both said their father instilled in them his value of hard work. He started his lesson by having them both work at the restaurant while growing up.
“I remember being in junior high and taking a bus to the restaurant after school," Woodman said. "I worked three days a week, helping with tasks like rolling silver until I was old enough to be a server."
Pelts and Woodman try to run their business like their father did — keeping in mind the fact that their employees are like family.
“If you are going to come to work, you want to work around people you like,” Pelts said. “We have pit masters who have been with us since the beginning. Eight families make up 90% of our staff. There are mothers, daughters, husbands, nephews, cousins.”
Last year, Pelts and Woodman closed all the restaurants for a day to host a “Family Reunion” to celebrate the staff and talk to them about the future of the company, treating them as part of their family in the business rather than just employees.
As for the future, Corky’s partnered with another Memphis-based family business, Dobbs Equity Partners LLC, last summer.
“Our father didn’t believe in debt and never borrowed from a bank,” Pelts said. “So, when it was time to grow, we knew we needed a partner, not a loan. We looked for another family business that had our same values.”
Dobbs Equity Partners CEO John Dobbs Jr. said of the partnership, “We are just two Memphis families working together to grow our business.”
Corky's also includes Corky’s Food Manufacturing, Prime Time Strategic Partners and Simply Delicious Catering. Corky’s Food Manufacturing makes and distributes Corky’s retail food products and El Terrifico Cheese Dip to Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco, Publix, Kroger and other outlets. Prime Time Strategic Partners has a presence on the QVC shopping network, and offers fulfillment and shipping of refrigerated and frozen foods for dozens of brands nationwide. Simply Delicious Catering offers full-service catering.
When it comes to the third generation running the family business, Pelts and Woodman are not sure if their children will be part of future management.
“Our dad believed in the odds of a family business working were against us — and that we were so lucky that we were all able to work together,” Woodman said. “He didn’t want anything to come between family and felt strongly that the third generation should not be part of the business.
“We have helped our children go out and try other things. We will see if one wants to come back and work in the family business.”
“Luckily, we have so many good people within the company to carry on,” Pelts added, noting many employees have been there 10, 20 or even 30 years.
The Bar-B-Q Shop
Eric Vernon was 5 years old when his father, Frank Vernon, bought Brady and Lil’s and turned it into The Bar-B-Q Shop in 1987.
“I was here all the time,” Eric said of his childhood growing up in his family’s restaurant. “I came with my mom in the evenings. I’d do my homework at the end of the bar, and then I’d go to sleep in a cot in the pit room.”
Once he was old enough, he started working in the kitchen and as a server.
“While in college, I wasn’t planning on working at the restaurant,” he said.
Eventually, after working for others and getting a Master of Business Administration, Eric decided to come back to his family’s business. Because there were several longtime employees and managers at the restaurant, Frank had his son work his way up. Today, Eric is primarily running the show, with his father helping with the business side.
When asked about what’s important in running a business, both Eric and Frank recounted how they were baptized together as a family, both as adults.
“If you don’t have faith, you can’t be in the restaurant business," Eric said. "It’s just too rough."
And how does Frank say you get award-winning ribs? “By cooking them slow and consistently.”
Consistency and following tried-and-true recipes and business practices are key points Frank has instilled in his son.
“We have to stay respectful with each other,” Eric said of the process of shifting from a father-son relationship at work to one of business partners. “You also have to be able to be honest and learn how to talk to each other.”
Frank offers this advice to any parent thinking of passing their family business on to a child, “They really need to want to do it.” He said he would never push a business on a child who wasn’t passionate about the business. “Of course, you hope your child loves it. It’s what every parent wants."
Separating business from personal lives can be hard in any industry, but especially in the restaurant business. To stay close as a family outside work, Eric and his parents get together for church and brunch every Sunday. It’s a weekly tradition that they say has kept the family and business strong.
The Arcade Restaurant
The Arcade is Memphis' oldest restaurant, founded in 1919 by Speros Zepatos after he immigrated from Cephalonia, Greece, to Memphis. This year marks their 100th year in operation.
Today, a fourth generation of the Zepatos family is running the Downtown restaurant.
In the 1950s, Speros' son Harry Zepatos took over the Arcade and transformed it into the '50s-style diner it is today. Third-generation owners Harry and Karan Zepatos ran the day-to-day operations of The Arcade for several years before turning over the business about two years ago to their son Jeff Zepatos and his wife, Kelcie.
Like his father, Jeff never thought he would end up running the family restaurant.
“My parents never talked about us necessarily taking over,” Jeff said. “I grew up hearing about how the restaurant helped keep the family closer. I don’t think I appreciated that until more recently.”
The Arcade Restaurant: All in the Family: Multi-generational restaurants Memphis Commercial Appeal
Harry, who took over The Arcade only after his father decided to retire, said he didn't think Jeff and Kelcie would want to work in the restaurant.
"We encouraged him to do what he wanted to do," Harry said. "When he said they wanted to come and run the restaurant, we were very excited but cautioned them it could be a difficult and consuming job.”
The Arcade Restaurant has stood at the corner of South Main and GE Patterson since it opened in 1919. (Photo: Courtesy of Kelcie Zepatos)
Not surprisingly, Jeff grew up in the restaurant.
“I first started going to work with my parents in middle school," he said. "I obviously didn’t manage, but I was never allowed to simply sit. It was at work a lot, but it was always fun to me. I wanted to be a part of running the family business. I knew it was very special to my dad, and I wanted to play a part."
Jeff said he has been fortunate to meet "many special Memphians as regulars in the restaurant."
"There have been plenty of famous customers that people like to talk about, but it’s the regulars that I appreciate the most," he said. "Whether it’s them talking about Memphis in their own way, or the stories they bring in, they’re all very special. I never got to know my great-grandfather, but I feel like I knew him well because of all the regulars and the stories they’ve shared.”
Jeff offered some sage advice to anyone thinking of joining their family’s business. “Patience and humility. You can’t do all the thinking yourself. You don’t want to be at the top alone. If you do it right, your family won’t be the only family if you have there.”
As for a fifth generation, Kelcie said she and Jeff, who currently do not have children, "wouldn't pressure them to take over the restaurant, but it has been a trend of each generation to be a part of it. The restaurant is a magnet for bringing people and our family together, hence the meaning of 'Arcade.' Before there were video games, an arcade was known as a place of entertainment for people to meet up, eat, drink and shop, which can all be done at The Arcade Building."
When it comes to family for Jeff and Kelcie, they have the previous generation of owners they can ask for advice.
"I have a great relationship with Jeff and Kelcie," Harry said. "I think that is important. If you don’t have that relationship, I think working together is a not good idea. You have to be able listen to new ideas and be willing to try new things.”