Not many married couples can work well together, much less build a popular, thriving restaurant. But for Steve and Sandy Stewart, working together comes easy.
Steve and Sandy are the former owners of The Neighborhood Grill, a small hole-in-the-wall diner located on Highway 178 across from the Maywood subdivision in Olive Branch. The pair, who bought the restaurant in September 2017, sold it back to the previous owners earlier this month to spend more time together.
Steve and Sandy, who have two daughters and three grandsons, will celebrate their 33rd anniversary in August. The couple met at a convenience store called the Han-dee Shop in Philadelphia when Steve came in to restock the coolers one night while she was visiting a friend. They were married two months later.
"[It was] love at first sight," Sandy said. "It does exist."
The pair moved to Southaven in July 1990. For over two decades, Steve worked for the Southaven Police Department and Sandy worked at a job that she eventually grew to hate after a large corporation bought her company out. After Steve announced his plans to retire from the police department 28 years later, she knew that she needed a change because she didn't want her grandchildren to remember her as a bitter woman who hated her job.
One day, Steve texted Sandy a picture of a restaurant he had seen for sale on Craigslist. Soon, the owner of the Neighborhood Grill had emailed him back, and they bought the restaurant.
The restaurant continued to grow and became popular for the hospitality, good food and small-town charm. Regular customers continued to be a staple. Visitors passing through town are even attracted here.
"People would come in there and eat and tell us they were on their way to Florida or on their way to wherever and they were going to stop [again] on their way back home," Sandy said. "Most people want to find a mom-and-pop place to eat instead of IHOP or McDonald's."
The restaurant even appeared on national television during their time there when Fox News broadcast its Fox and Friends show live from the restaurant. They had been the number one restaurant that appeared when Fox googled top breakfast places in Mississippi.
Steve and Sandy feel that their community connections was a reason that their business thrived.
"It's always been a popular restaurant," Sandy said. "Steve and I felt like it was popular for us because of the people that we knew. My kids grew up playing softball and we traveled a lot, so we had a lot of friends. Him at the police department, all of his friends and contacts. We just had people all over the place coming to eat."
For them, working as a married couple seemed natural.
"We get along, we work well together," Sandy said. "He handled certain aspects, I handled certain aspects. He was kind of behind-the-scenes, and I was more out front, talking to the customers, getting to know people. He liked walking around and holding babies and playing with the babies if he could. We've always been able to work well together. A lot of couples cannot say that but we do. I get on his nerves and he gets on mine, but that's just part of marriage."
Their favorite part was being able to build relationships with customers in their community, meet new people and hear all the stories that were told.
"You get close to a lot of the regular people that come in, the regular people who would come in every Saturday," Sandy said. "You get to know people like that, you get to be friends with them and learn about their lives and things about Olive Branch and the area. I loved the camaraderie and socializing with the customers and walking around and talking to them and getting to know the people."
Although they loved the restaurant, operating it soon became too much. Steve had to get another job to pay for their insurance, and Sandy soon became overwhelmed.
"When he had to go to work, I missed him being there," Sandy said. "That was hard on me because we do work well together. We always have been able to work well together."
Working different jobs, their hours and the fact that Sandy had to get up early every morning to shop for supplies at the store meant that they couldn't go to church or Bible study together. Sandy also wasn't able to devote as much time to their family.
"I said something's just gonna have to give," Sandy said. "I've gotta get something off my shoulders. I can't give up any of my responsibility at home because that's my family and I'm a mama bear, and they will all tell you that our family is the biggest thing for me and Steve."
Behind-the-scenes work, like maintenance, also became a challenge. Once, an electrical socket almost burned the building down.
"We had to get an electrician up there to fix it the morning we were leaving to go on vacation," Sandy said. "I was actually sitting over there and started crying because it was just one thing after another."
"We never had a vacation time and we finally got one," Steve said. "And then they called that morning as we were leaving. I told her, `Don't cry. I can go up there and take care of it.'"
They began thinking about selling the restaurant at the beginning of the year. Sandy casually asked the previous owner if she would want to buy it back, and she agreed.
"Before we had the restaurant, I always dealt with stuff at home," Sandy said. "He dealt with the maintenance of the house, I dealt with the bills. We had that work-life balance. He did his job, I did my job. But then you add that on top of it and you're bringing it home every night, it's constantly one thing after another. I like to think we've taught our kids hard work and dedication, devotion, lot of love. I want to be involved in everything that my kids do. I just didn't feel like I was putting in the time with them that I felt I needed to do."
"You're just such a good person," Steve said, grinning at her. Sandy gave him a playful jab in response.
The couple also had to face struggles outside of the restaurant. In January 2018, their house burned to the ground and they lost everything, including two dogs and nine puppies.
"If it hadn't been for the girls at the restaurant and our church family and a lot of customers at the restaurant, I don't know that we would've survived that because that was hard," Sandy said. "I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. You don't know what it's like until you wake up and you don't even own a toothbrush. All we had were the clothes on our backs. That was it. We lost his mama's Bible, his dad's shotgun, all of our old family pictures, stuff that people just take for granted."
Over time, they began the process of rebuilding their lives with the love and support of their community. Food and money were sent from people they didn't even know. One customer at the restaurant even donated a table, chairs and three complete vintage bedroom sets.
"That really touched me a lot because he didn't take a dime for any of that furniture," Sandy said. "Just the people that we didn't even know wanting to help us out means the world to us. To say that we're blessed is a huge understatement. Without family and friends and the restaurant and the girls at the restaurantâ€¦ that was probably the hardest thing we had ever been through. We lost everything."
Now, Steve and Sandy are looking toward the future, a future that will involve more time spent together and more time with those that they love.
"If it wasn't for us having to have health insurance, we'd still be up there because we enjoyed the camaraderie with the people," Steve said. "We've made a lot of friends."
"Yeah, we did make a lot of friends there, a lot of people that we met through there that I hope that we can stay friends with for a long time," Sandy said. "I don't miss the restaurant business itself. I miss the customers, the camaraderie, getting to know the people and talking to the people."
Brent Walker is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.