What started as a fun side business for financial wizards Rick Spell and his daughter Christy Spell Terry, blossomed into 10 restaurants over 18 years, seven of which are right here in the 30A community.
In 2004, while deep in their finance careers, the father-daughter duo acquired their first restaurant, Brookhaven Pub & Grill in Memphis, Tennessee.
The sports bar concept remains close to Christy’s heart and when the opportunity to buy Shades Bar & Grill came in Fall 2022, everything came full circle.
“Shades was our home here [on 30A]. When we moved, that’s where my husband (then boyfriend) hung out, that was our Brookhaven down here. They’re both sports bars. They’re both the local watering hole. We knew most of the staff. We got married at The Pearl, and when our reception was over, everything was shut down in Rosemary Beach so we moved our party to Shades. I’m honored they reached out to us, that they had that much confidence in what we have done down here and they entrusted us with something so important to them. It’s been big shoes to fill—we want to make sure we make them proud and we continue the legacy they left,” Christy said.
But the 30A saga didn’t start with Shades. It started with a clandestine meeting with the Hartleys to buy George’s and La Cocina (now LaCo) back in late 2014. Christy and Rick wanted to expand their successful Brookhaven concept and were looking around their home base at the time, Memphis. They cast their nets a little wider to include the Nashville area, but word that two restaurants in the Florida Panhandle were for sale captured their interest. The catch? Everything had to be kept quiet so the news didn’t break that the Hartleys were selling.
“We met George and Ann for drinks at The Pearl and then we headed over to George’s for dinner. There was already a line at 5 p.m. and we saw all these Memphians, but nobody knew what we were doing down here. It was funny how many people we ran into that first night when we were trying to be on the down low and avoid people we knew,” Christy laughed. That fateful visit set up a flurry of successful restaurant acquisitions in the 30A area. The initial deal was finalized in January 2015, then in April 2016 Saltwater Grill in Panama City Beach joined the portfolio.
In October 2019, the father-daughter team acquired five Babalu restaurants closer to their Memphis roots: one in Jackson, Mississippi, two in Memphis, one in Knoxville, Tennessee, and one in Birmingham, Alabama. Then COVID hit and tough decisions had to be made. Christy and Rick closed the Knoxville and Birmingham spots, trying to consolidate what they had to say grace over to areas they could personally oversee. It may not seem like it with 10 restaurants, but Christy and Rick want to maintain that hands-on, small-business feel with everything in their portfolio.
Christy elaborated, “I don’t want us to get too big that I’m not available to give to everybody. I was born and raised in Memphis, and it’s a great city that has a lot to offer, and that will always be a part of me, but this area has relaxed me. I was a full-time accountant until 2011 when I left to focus my attention on the restaurants. I’m busier now than I’ve ever been, but being by the water and having the opportunity to sit and listen to the waves just relaxes me. And there’s something to be said about being part of a smaller community.”
Understanding the people and communities where they run their businesses is a key component of their success. They buy restaurants that add to the diversity of their portfolio and don’t come in thinking about big changes. They observe and listen to the staff and guests. Christy added, “We make sure that our teams have everything that they need to do their job well. I tell the staff ‘You may see yourselves working for us, but we work for you—we have to be able to provide you with all the tools and equipment to make your job easier.’”
The other big consideration for Christy and Rick is keeping buildings fresh and new to stay current with all the development in the area. For Saltwater, that meant a facelift to a brighter, airier atmosphere. For La Crema that meant an expanded space to accommodate a full bar and more seating.
They also pay attention to guest feedback—they read every review that comes in from their marketing firm. “We wake up and the first thing we read is our nightly email or reviews that came in. We talk to our managers and try to get the story of any instances that have happened, figure out where we failed with guests, and how to fix it. It’s hard because [our staff] takes it so personally,” Christy said.
“When you’re serving as many guests as they serve, particularly in season, and you have all these great experiences where people leave happy, but then you have this bad one come in, it’s just so deflating. But it’s part of it. We need to look in the mirror and see if there’s something that we need to make right.”
That continued commitment to hospitality probably played into Joe Freer’s decision to offer Shades and Shaka to Christy and Rick. Freer first approached Christy in the Fall of 2020, to her surprise. He asked if they would be interested in Shades, and even though it had not been on their radar, they jumped at the possibility. But, it wasn’t time yet. “That’s hard. It’s like if we considered selling Brookhaven—we just celebrated our 20th anniversary in December last year so I put myself in their shoes and I know the difficult emotions that I would go through.”
But in 2022, it was time. Shades with the addition of Shaka Sushi and Cocktail Bar, became the latest members of the Spell Restaurant Group. And it added one more level of diversity to their portfolio.
“You can hit all of our restaurants and eat something different every day. Adding that sushi concept was a plus for us, and James is a staple in the area. Everybody loves him; he’s a fabulous sushi chef,” Christy said.
With the addition of Shades and Shaka, she feels like their portfolio is well-rounded, and dare I say, complete. A sushi concept that they previously flirted with and a sports bar that brings them back to their Memphis roots made this last buy special for the father and daughter.
“I don’t want us to lose our family appeal. We are small, even if people don’t see us that way. When we bought Brookhaven, everybody thought we would eventually go corporate because of our business background. But we’re still a father-daughter team, and I don’t want to lose that hands-on style that I still have with all of our restaurants. I want to know all of our employees; I want to know what their families and lives are like outside of work.”
Are there more restaurants on the horizon for the Spell Restaurant group, Christy’s not sure. With such a healthy portfolio of successful businesses, they are much more particular when considering an acquisition.
For now, she and her dad are looking at the possibilities with their latest concepts and expanding delivery and catering options. They’ve partnered with 30AGrub2go to bring their diverse fare to homes across the 30A area and looking into ways to make Shaka’s signature catering boards and in-home sushi experiences more readily available, while still staffing the restaurant appropriately.
Who knows what magic Christy and Rick will cook up next, but for now you can dine at a different concept every day of the week from tapas to burgers to fresh Gulf seafood to tacos to grits, and more while sampling their family hospitality and meticulous attention to detail.