Meet 2 of Butler County’s most interesting Black-owned businesses

Mike Neal, owner of Neal's Famous BBQ, has been in the food business in Hamilton for nearly twenty years. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF
Mike Neal, owner of Neal's Famous BBQ, has been in the food business in Hamilton for nearly twenty years. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Twenty years ago, with a crumbled up $10 bill in his pocket, an old grill, a packet of ribs and three loaves of bread, Mike Neal started selling sandwiches on a corner of East Avenue in Hamilton.

From those humble beginnings Neal operates three barbecue businesses, and his sauce is sold at Jungle Jim’s in Fairfield and local Kroger stores. Soon he will start manufacturing his sauce locally.

Throughout Black History Month, the Journal-News will be covering Butler County’s past, present and future in the Black community. Today begins that coverage with two of the county’s most interesting Black-owned businesses.

‘It’s been a challenging ride’

How did the 52-year-old Neal rise to the top?

“Hope, faith and endurance,” he said Friday as he prepared for his lunch crowd. “Faith makes me believe and the obstacles make it a miracle. We have grown beyond measure. The community, the city and the people have truly stood by us. It’s been a challenging ride, but it’s been amazing.”

It’s difficult to succeed in the ultra-competitive restaurant business, he said. It’s even more of a challenge when you’re a Black owner, Neal said.

“To an extent we have to be perfect at our craft,” he said of Black entrepreneurs. “We have to really put ourselves out there to be seen and compete on the economic level; prove we belong here. But you won’t be intimidated if you believe in yourself. You have to believe in yourself before people will believe in your product.”

Neal operates Neal’s Famous BBQ at 202 N. Third St., Neal’s Grab ‘N’ Go at 997 Eaton Ave., and Neal’s on Wheels that was built by a custom food truck manufacturer in Fitzgerald, Ga.

‘We have been blessed’

When The Rev. Donald Jordan Sr. died four years ago, his family needed to make a decision: Continue its more than 60-year involvement in Middletown or close.

Donald Jordan Jr. has kept the business open and, in fact, expanded to Hamilton and Dayton.

“It was a struggle at first,” the 42-year-old Fairfield Twp. resident said when asked about taking over his father’s funeral home. “While the business was established, it was like we had to start from scratch because we had to find new buildings.”

The property owner where Hall-Jordan & Pretty Memorial Chapel once sat on South Main Street in Middletown sold it without giving the Jordan family the opportunity to purchase it, he said.

So in less than two months, he opened Donald Jordan Memorial Chapel at 4083 Pleasant Ave. in Hamilton that has since moved to University Boulevard, relocated the Middletown funeral home to 3520 Roosevelt Blvd., continued operating the funeral home on Reading Road in Cincinnati and opened a location on Germantown Pike in Dayton.

“We have been blessed,” he said.

But he still battles racism, he said. Banks, he said, are reluctant to loan money to Black-owned businesses, even those with a lengthy history. One Middletown bank, he said, told him he didn’t have enough business credit, though his father started the business in 1953 out of his parents’ Ninth Avenue home.

The South Main Street location opened in the late 1950s

“How much credit do you need?” Jordan Jr. asked.

So Jordan has borrowed from family and friends and pulled funds out of his personal account.

He said business in 2020 increased because more people died from the coronavirus.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “We need deaths to survive.”

He said some funeral homes have contacted him about handling the funeral services of someone who allegedly died from COVID-19. Jordan said one of the first lessons in mortuary school is how to safely handle someone with a potentially deadly disease.

“You have to take all the precautions because you don’t always know why they died,” he said.