Pat ONeal, the owner of the Smokn Pig barbecue restaurant and the down-home-style Ole Times Country Buffet, is a self-made businessman who friends say has a long streak of humility.
I dont like to bring attention to myself, said ONeal, who owns a dozen restaurants, including four in Middle Georgia.
ONeal, 59, owns Smokn Pig in Macon and Valdosta, nine Ole Times Country Buffet restaurants including those in Macon, Warner Robins and Dublin, as well as two other Valdosta-based eateries: Mama Junes and Creekside Tavern & Grill.
Despite ONeals success, some people who have known him for years say he is always unpretentious and low key.
(ONeal) does not claim to be the one who does it all. He gives credit to his employees, said Ray Parr, ONeals right-hand man, who oversees several of the restaurants. He doesnt want to stand out as the owner. He would much rather be the guy standing there washing dishes instead of the guy to tell you to go back (in the kitchen) and wash the dishes.
ONeal grew up on a Valdosta dairy and horse farm with four brothers and two sisters. His parents, who are in their 80s, still live on the farm, and all their children live nearby.
Like most people raised on a farm, ONeal has worked ever since he can remember.
It wasnt a question whether you got up and went to work, he said.
ONeal started his first business before he was a teenager, selling boiled peanuts up and down the road all over Valdosta, he said. At night I would spread (the peanuts) out to cool off and then bag them up in little brown bags. I sold (each bag) for a dime.
He bought his first bicycle on credit at the local hardware store and paid it off by selling peanuts.
During high school, ONeal played as a fullback for the Valdosta Wildcats football team and was good enough to get several scholarship offers from noted colleges including the University of Tennessee, Auburn University and Florida State.
I turned them down and went and got married, he said. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would probably go (to college). Back then, you thought you had to get married.
A photo of ONeal from his football-playing days is hanging in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. But there was a problem. His brothers name is in the caption instead, and he never played football, ONeal said, laughing.
After high school, even though his father ran a produce business, ONeal started his own roadside produce stand, buying and reselling fresh fruits and vegetables.
Ive always worked for myself, he said.
By the time he was about 20, he ran about four produce stands around Valdosta.
I made a little money, and then I would open up another one, he said. I worked hard day and night.
ONeal remained in produce for more than 30 years. While still operating that business, ONeal joined one of his brothers in a buffet restaurant in Valdosta.
In the mid-1990s, he and a friend each put up $25,000 and started Ole Times Country Buffet in Douglas. Before long, they owned more than half a dozen restaurants. By the time they decided to part ways, they had four restaurants and each took over two of them. His friend later got out of the business.
I started opening more restaurants, mostly in south Georgia until about eight years ago when ONeal opened Ole Times Country Buffet in Warner Robins and later one in Macon, he said. He opened an Ole Times in Savannah about four months ago.
The first Smokn Pig debuted in Valdosta about seven years ago. The second one opened at Macon Mall in March 2012.
Some of restaurants opened in places where other eateries failed, and ONeal said he gets asked why he thinks he can succeed in the same place.
Its the food, really, he said. We use fresh vegetables when we can, and the service -- its all about customer service. We try to make everybody happy. Thats our goal.
All of ONeals children and even an ex-wife work in the business. His oldest daughter, Jennifer Sumner, handles the insurance, accounting and advertising for the restaurants.
ONeal likes providing jobs for people
Rex Ethridge said the restaurateur knows the business inside and out.
Pat is a pretty savvy person, said Ethridge, owner of Farmer Browns Produce in Valdosta. Hes very smart when it comes to opening these restaurants. ... He knows where one will work and wont work, and if they dont do well, he knows when to close them down.
Ethridge and ONeal were once friendly competitors in the produce business. If one of them ran out of something, the other would share what he had.
I would describe Pat as being probably the most kind-hearted person that Ive ever known in my life, Ethridge said. Hes a caring person. Hes a hard worker. ... Hes just a unique individual.
Parr shared some similar sentiments about ONeal and not just because I work for him, he said.
He doesnt dodge his responsibilities -- he meets them head on, Parr said. He always thinks about the employees first. Hes a very polite person and just an honest guy.
ONeal said the best part of what he does is putting people to work.
Nowadays, with so many people out of work, when you open a store, ... you want to hire as many as you can, he said. My goal in the restaurant business was putting 1,000 people to work, and we are over 1,000. For some reason that was my goal. I dont know why.
ONeal employs about 500 people in his Middle Georgia restaurants.
While he doesnt like to look at the downside of owning so many businesses, ONeal said his least favorite job is letting an employee go, but most people leave on their own, he said.
Also, traveling to all the restaurant locations can be tiring, and keeping up the maintenance on so many operations is challenging.
But Im not a gloom and doom person, he said.
ONeal says he doesnt want to be like his 87-year-old father, who always worked two or three jobs. He recently retired and would still be working today if he could get up and go, ONeal said.
The younger ONeal has never really let go of selling produce.
I still go to Cordele and buy cantaloupes and watermelons during the summer and sell them at a market, he said. I just cant get out of it.
As for where ONeal expects to be in 10 years, he dreams of a sunny destination.
I hope to be in Destin, Florida, lying on the beach, he said. But Ill probably still be here in the restaurant business.
To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.