P.F. Chang’s, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, and Pei Wei Asian Diner. These are all brands many Americans know well. Meet Paul Fleming, the Naples resident and developer behind these notable names, as well as his wife Jody Goodenough-Fleming, a former commercial pilot, who is an accomplished restaurateur herself. Besides creating successful spots to dine, this ambitious couple is passionate about philanthropic work and living life together as Neapolitans.
NI: Paul, how long have you been in the restaurant business?
Paul Fleming: About 35 years. I started in the oil industry straight out of college but eventually left it for the restaurant business.
Jody, you’re a former commercial pilot. What’s it like to trade operating planes for opening and operating restaurants as CEO of Paul Fleming Restaurants?
Jody Goodenough-Fleming: I’ve always been a foodie. It’s always been interesting to me. I’ve traveled quite a bit and visited several culinary schools, too. I enjoy cooking, and Paul and I both just enjoy great, quality food. It’s a good match for me.
What are your thoughts on Naples compared to some of the other areas you’ve lived in the West, such as California?
Paul: We really think this is one of the nicest places in the world. From the people to the weather to the quality of life.
Jody: The weather is wonderful, and we have a lot of friends here. I don’t want to speak for both of us, but for where we are in our lives, it’s a good fit.
I know you both are highly philanthropic—here and elsewhere—and have served as trustees for the Naples Children & Education Foundation (NCEF) in conjunction with the Naples Winter Wine Festival for several years. What attracted you to this charity?
Paul: We came socially at first, to tell you the truth. But then found out about where the contributions go and how well the money is accounted for. NCEF is wonderful. Serious people are involved, and they expect serious results.
Jody: It also has a direct impact on our community. When you see the list of organizations that receive funds from NCEF, they’re local organizations we all recognize. And there’s follow-through.
Paul: That’s a really good point. It’s local. It’s just amazing what they do for kids. We’ve both been on other big charity boards, but there’s nothing like what they do here to make sure they get results.
The household names like P.F. Chang’s, Fleming’s, and Pei Wei—how were you able to scale these so incredibly?
Paul: The model is actually pretty simple, and the easy answer is value. In the restaurant business, there’s always a value-price relationship. It doesn’t matter if it’s a $10 sandwich or an $80 steak. And we’ve always been value-oriented. At P.F. Chang’s, we used free-range chicken and organic vegetables, and we didn’t charge as much as we should have charged. There’s always a value quotient. And the public knows to the penny if you’ve given them a great product at a great price. Even now in this period of inflation, we just won’t raise prices as much as most do. It’s always served us well.
You two are involved in the Lake Park Diner, which was conceived by the late Adam Smith. How did this come about, and what attracted you to the restaurant’s concept?
Paul: We liked the food a lot—the organic vegetables, the healthy options. We were just customers but then met Adam. He and his wife, Kelly, and Jody and I got to be friends. Adam, his family, and their business—they were already operating fabulously. I thought there might be some potential ways we could help, and they were nice enough to allow us to be involved.
Jody: I think we also believed in the concept and the quality of
the food. And, as we continue to develop, our goal is to stay true to Adam’s vision.
Paul: That’s very true. In meetings, we often ask “What would Adam do?” His family is still involved, and they are wonderful to work with. We’re great, active partners.
The Lake Park Diner is expanding, including a location in Bonita Springs, Founders Square in Naples, and elsewhere. What’s the status of these?
Paul: The Bonita Springs location is under construction and is planned to open in March. The Founders Square location project will start in February.
You plan to open PJK Neighborhood Chinese in downtown Naples soon. From where did the concept stem, and how does it compare to a P.F. Chang’s or Pei Wei?
Paul: With PJK, we are trying to embrace the Florida lifestyle and include more fresh seafood. Having said that, we want to provide those dishes that people associate with traditional Chinese food. But, it’s going to be elevated for sure, with a higher-end wine list. Not the prices of fine dining but higher end. It will be more sophisticated. It’s meant to be a neighborhood restaurant with a slower pace that you can drop in and enjoy.
There’s not a lot of Chinese restaurants in Naples, especially in the downtown area. What does PJK offer?
Jody: The way this location is designed, there will be a completely separate to-go area. You can pick up items for home or the beach. But with dining [in], we are very limited downtown when it comes to Chinese food. So, I feel like we have a bit of a niche.
What about the forthcoming Pablo’s Authentic Taqueria, also located in Old Naples? It sounds like you do a lot of research and development projects there, but what’s the longer-term vision?
Jody: The current location was never designed to be a full, sit-down restaurant. It was always meant to have more of a to-go concept. And the kitchen there is being used for R&D. But, to answer your question, the concept is still in the works.
You’re restaurateurs, but do you two cook together?
Jody: We do. We enjoy having small get together dinners, and about 95 percent of the time, Paul and I will cook.
Paul: She’s an incredible cook. She’s taken cooking classes all over the world, including in Italy; she’s a fabulous Italian cook.
Are there any future endeavors coming? What’s next?
Paul: Anything serving charities would be great. There’s always something new that’s needed. We really like it here, and we want to be involved.