Jodie Stanfield has been in the restaurant business for 37 years. He spent the first two decades of his career with casual dining chains TGI Fridays, LongHorn Steakhouse and Applebee’s, mostly in the Birmingham market.
He worked his way through just about every restaurant job. He started as a bartender at TGI Fridays, then “George McKerrow (founder of Longhorn Steakhouse) showed me how to cut meat,” he said. Jodie held the title of executive chef with Up the Creek Fish Camps, a division of Applebee’s, a chain where he later served as a general manager. He first ventured into ownership with Furnace Masters restaurant at Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park.
Fourteen years ago, he returned to his native Etowah County to combine his passion for food with his love for everything local.
The Attalla native and his wife, Karen, own and operate Local Joe’s, a farm-to-plate and barbecue restaurant, market and bakery in Rainbow City and Albertville with a catering arm in Southside. Local Joe’s In The Alley, an entertainment venue in Gadsden Mall, features street food made with Local Joe’s smoked meats. There also is a licensed location of Local Joe’s in Cave Spring, Ga.
The meat is local, the produce is local, so are the jams, jellies, candles, baked goods, honey, wine, syrup, cheeses and more. Local is more than part of its name. Local is Local Joe’s mission.
“We sell a lot made or grown by the local Joes nearby,” Jodie said. “We buy straight from local farmers. If we can, we use local sources for our ingredients.”
“Local is our community. We buy from a lot of local Joes. We have a little incubator going on inside our stores.”
Jodie technically qualifies as one of four chefs for the restaurants, although he said, “I don’t do as much (cooking) as I used to.” His role is more supervisor/teacher for his 53 employees, and “I slice a lot of meat,” he said.
Karen is behind the counter or in the office, scheduling and organizing catering jobs for everyone from fishing tournaments to weddings or fund-raising events for local nonprofits.
“If you don’t stay visible, you go away,” Jodie tells those starting out in business. Staying seen in the community is one of the reasons, Local Joe’s belongs to The Chamber of Gadsden/Etowah County as well as the chambers in Albertville, Boaz, Guntersville and Calhoun County.
Being a member of the Alabama Retail Association gives his business a statewide perspective, Jodie says. “You get a bird’s eye view, not just from a county perspective, but from a state perspective of what’s going on from the Legislature to just business in general,” he said, adding he has gained “knowledge from (other member businesses) all across the state of what they’re going through.”
On Jan. 1, Jodie began a two-year term as chairman of the Alabama Retail Association. His goals for his term include educating young entrepreneurs about the benefits of belonging to a statewide trade association. The Stanfields also are members of the International Caterers Association.
While the U.S. Small Business Administration named Jodie the 2017 Alabama Small Business Person of the Year and he and Karen were Gold Alabama Retailers of the Year in the same year, Jodie places the success of his business on his staff.
“We invest in people and buy things,” he said of Local Joe’s, heaping praise on his culinary-trained chefs and catering set-up crews. “The people we have on staff are incredible.”
J.P. Pendergrass, who has worked in New Orleans and San Francisco restaurants, is Local Joe’s executive chef and catering manager. J.P. splits his time between the downtown Albertville location and the catering hub at Southside. “We consolidated our catering at Southside to maintain consistency” in events large and small, said Karen. “It is a well-oiled machine.” Local Joe’s caters events for as many as thousands and often caters multiple events on one day. It caters about 120 weddings annually.
Ben Keener came to Local Joe’s from Wildflower Café in Mentone. He serves as chef at Local Joe’s original Rainbow City location. Jamie Hughes, who worked for three years at the Rainbow City location, serves as chef for the Georgia licensed location.
Serving as pitmasters are Austin Chambers at Rainbow City and Chandler Gilbreath in Albertville. “These two young guys consistently put out a great product time and again,” Jodie said.
While Local Joe’s has highly trained staff, the experts that helped get the business off the ground were family.
Bob McNeal, Jodie’s stepdad, “actually went out (on U.S. 411) and counted cars on different days of the week and saw how much traffic was coming out of Asheville and Rainbow City,” before Jodie converted a roadside grocery into a trading post and restaurant.
His mother, Ann McNeal, made fried pies and other baked goods from the beginning until the pandemic hit.
Karen’s father, Floyd Powell, manages the Albertville restaurant, while her mother, Priscilla, bakes the German chocolate cakes and coconut meringue pies the restaurants sell.
The Stanfields’ children – Kassidie, Zac and Eli – worked in the restaurants when they were younger. Kassidie and her husband still help some with catering when they can.
“There’s also so many people who work with us who feel like our family,” said Karen. The business even employs the children of one of their original employees who also is still with Local Joe’s.
“We have a very loyal group,” said Karen, adding, “we are thankful that our people stayed” during the pandemic.
The communities Local Joe’s serve also stepped up and stayed with them when the pandemic hit. “People just started mailing us checks and said, ‘Feed people,’” said Karen. Local Joe’s fulfilled the orders, making thousands of sandwiches to feed their employees and families, first responders, the medical community and teachers. With funds provided by other businesses and community leaders, “we fed five different hospitals during the pandemic,” Jodie said
The coronavirus also inspired a new division – Joe Boxes for catering or pickup at Local Joe’s restaurants. Each box comes with a sandwich, chips, a cookie as well as Local Joe’s red and white barbecue sauces. “We also do a lot of family packs – a pound of meat, an eight-pack of buns and two sides,” said Jodie. At the height of the pandemic, takeout business jumped from 30% to 65%. That ratio has evened out or gotten back to near normal, but customers who come into the restaurants now frequently order a family pack for the weekend and schedule a pickup time, said Karen.
Ken Grissom, director of the Small Business Development Center at Jacksonville State University, who nominated Jodie for the U.S. Small Business Administration award, said, “Jodie is living his dream of marrying his love of people and service to others through his business.”
Number of Employees
My family. My parents, Ann and Bob McNeal, have been, and will always be, my main mentors. My mother is a salesperson, and Bob, my stepdad, always considers logistics – analyzing, charting. My wife, Karen, and my father-in-law, Floyd Powell, are salespeople as well. My brother and nephew are in sales with one of our food suppliers, Wood Fruitticher.
To be successful in the restaurant business, you must “own what you sit on.” I “leased to purchase” the properties we have, crunched the numbers to prove profitability and then took the idea to the bank to purchase/acquire the properties based on profit and loss statements. It is easier to acquire financing from a bank when you have proof of profitability.
The pandemic. We pulled our team together and pivoted. We had to streamline, repackage our products and move towards meal replacements for the family. We developed ways to cater to large and small crowds with individually packaged meals that were acceptable not only for businesses, but also for weddings. We fed first responders, hospital employees, city school system employees and many more with the help from our communities. That is how we survived and kept our employees.
Business owners should be humble and kind because people do not care about what you know, until they know how much you care. I consider myself a coach, and that comes from my late father, Bobby Jack Stanfield, who died at age 52. Although he didn’t live to see my success in business, he had a great impact on me by the way he coached Little League for 25 years.
This article is the cover story
of the February 2022 Alabama Retailer.
Originally posted Jan. 1, 2021