Neal’s Famous BBQ celebrates the journey from $10 and a dream

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

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

Editor’s note: This article is provided by The Hamiltonian magazine and first appeared as justhamilton.com.

HAMILTON — 20 years ago, Michael Neal set up his first sandwich stand selling a family staple: barbecue sandwiches. He’d learned how to make barbecue sauce and slow-cook meat to perfection from his father.

“My Dad is from the South, Alabama, so we have Southern Alabama dishes, barbecue with homemade sides. We grew up farming, planting our own vegetables. We have Southern roots,” Neal said.

Neal’s dream of selling barbecue began with a simple arrangement: he set up in front of a furniture store on East Avenue, catering mostly to local workers in siding and construction. However, word got out, and everybody started to notice.

“I would pay to stay in front of the store, but when I was out there, he saw he was selling a lot more furniture!” laughs Neal. “A gentleman came over from Dixie and Belle, and he said he had a place for us to get out of the rain and snow, at the Creamy Whip Ice Cream. Humble beginnings!”

Neal moved his operations over to Dixie Avenue and Belle Avenue, bringing the family recipe sauce with him as he entered his third year of selling barbecue.

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Mike Neal, owner of Neal’s Famous BBQ, has a new location, Neal’s Grab ‘N’ Go, now open at 997 Eaton Ave. in Hamilton. The modest storefront is strategically located next to Flub’s Ice Cream, providing a dinner-and-dessert dining option to hungry Hamiltonians. On Friday, three days before that locations ribbon-cutting ceremony, he received delivery of his third restaurant, Neal s on Wheels, which was built by a custom food truck manufacturer in Fitzgerald, Ga. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Mike Neal, owner of Neal’s Famous BBQ, has a new location, Neal’s Grab ‘N’ Go, now open at 997 Eaton Ave. in Hamilton. The modest storefront is strategically located next to Flub’s Ice Cream, providing a dinner-and-dessert dining option to hungry Hamiltonians. On Friday, three days before that locations ribbon-cutting ceremony, he received delivery of his third restaurant, Neal s on Wheels, which was built by a custom food truck manufacturer in Fitzgerald, Ga. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

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Mike Neal, owner of Neal’s Famous BBQ, has a new location, Neal’s Grab ‘N’ Go, now open at 997 Eaton Ave. in Hamilton. The modest storefront is strategically located next to Flub’s Ice Cream, providing a dinner-and-dessert dining option to hungry Hamiltonians. On Friday, three days before that locations ribbon-cutting ceremony, he received delivery of his third restaurant, Neal s on Wheels, which was built by a custom food truck manufacturer in Fitzgerald, Ga. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

He met Jungle Jim Bonaminio, and began selling his signature sauce collection at Jungle Jim’s at that point.

“Jungle became a mentor to me, he introduced himself to me when he’d seen me in the paper,” says Neal.

The sauce sales and the success of the barbecue itself drove the relocation to a spot on Central Avenue, where the restaurant really took on a classy, upscale feel. It was possible to expand the menu and serve more customers.

“It really took off from there, doing lots of city events as a vendor at RiversEdge and Operation Pumpkin,” says Neal.

The sauces, food, and ribs began winning awards around the city and the tri-state area. Neal shared the story of starting with only $10, three loaves of bread, a pack of meat, and a signature sauce. His story inspires many to realize that you can start a business even if you don’t feel like you have a lot of resources at the beginning.

Through their expansion, they moved to their iconic downtown location at 202 N. Third St., a staple of downtown that has been around longer than many of the other newer businesses in the area. Neal was part of welcoming new business owners to the revitalizing High Street area, all while dishing up delicious, award-winning barbecue every day.

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Neal’s Famous BBQ, 202 N. Third St., in Hamilton’s German Village Historic District. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Neal’s Famous BBQ, 202 N. Third St., in Hamilton’s German Village Historic District. STAFF FILE PHOTO

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Neal’s Famous BBQ, 202 N. Third St., in Hamilton’s German Village Historic District. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Awards like Best of the Midwest and Best of the North came over multiple years, with the original flavor of Neal’s barbecue sauce consistently wowing judges and customers alike. In addition to the original flavor, his bottled sauces include the Kickin’, the Carolina Gold, Bootlegger, Jamaican Jerk, Spicy Garlic, and Mrs. Deb’s Sweet Chili Sauce.

Over the past couple of years, they’ve been making improvements and changes, from expanding their trailer for event catering to a full restaurant on wheels, and coming out with house blend teas as well.

During the COVID pandemic, a strong takeout business, catering work with a variety of companies in the area, and a supportive city and chamber of commerce helped them weather the challenges. They even got the opportunity to deliver tasty barbecue through meals on wheels to senior citizens around the city.

“We thank the Lord and we thank our city; they were really generous and came up with ideas for local businesses here,” says Neal. “We found a way to incorporate our sauces in, since we started selling them at Kroger.”

Selling their sauces more widely, at Kroger as well as Jungle Jim’s, has allowed them to start a scholarship fund at the Hamilton Community Foundation, as well as ongoing efforts like back-to-school and Christmas drives for local youth.

“I love growing with this business and learning something new every day,” Neal said. “We have been very blessed, and humble beginnings taught me a lot.”

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