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Prominent restaurateur Paul Fleming’s secret sauce? Worry. But be flawless.

Passion and a sense of purpose continue to drive longtime restaurant operator Paul Fleming. His new Naples Chinese place is the latest example.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 5:00 a.m. April 24, 2023
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Paul Fleming, along with his wife Jody Goodenough-Fleming, opened PJK Neighborhood Chinese restaurant in Naples in March.
Paul Fleming, along with his wife Jody Goodenough-Fleming, opened PJK Neighborhood Chinese restaurant in Naples in March.
Courtesy photo
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Even after almost four decades in the restaurant business, even after building and growing notable successful national chains like Fleming’s Steakhouse and P.F. Chang’s, and even with the wisdom of being 68 years old, when Naples restaurateur Paul Fleming is asked what keeps him up at night about his latest concept, PJK Neighborhood Chinese, he answers flatly, “it’s everything.”

Fleming’s Paul Fleming Restaurants, which he operates with his wife, Jody Goodenough-Fleming, opened PJK, at 835 Fourth Ave. S. in Naples, March 14. The worries have since come like a persistent faucet drip: Are reservations up or down? Is the staff working well together? Is food preparation on time and consistent? Are customers happy? Do they get the concept? Is there red tide at the beach? Will rain keep people away? And on. 

In this way, Fleming’s years of experience plays more like a hot button for what could go wrong than a buffer against it. Says Fleming on his worries: “It’s everything and anything, all the time.”

In the first six weeks or so of PJK, the worries have mostly been unfounded. It’s doing rather well, so far, Fleming says, and he’s excited as ever about being in the restaurant business. So much so he’s helping to grow another Naples concept, Lake Park Diner, to include locations in Bonita Springs and north Sarasota County, in Lakewood Ranch. He also remains involved with other brands, including his flagship Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, which debuted in 1998, and Paul Martin’s American Grill.  

“I love what we do,” he says. “I love the restaurant business. We are crazy about it. I love eating. I love making people happy, and I love giving people jobs.”

That passion is evident in a conversation about PJK. The idea for the concept dates back, somewhat, to the idea that helped launch P.F. Changs, in 1993. Back then, Fleming says, he and his family, living in Arizona, sought a better option for local Chinese food. So with some partners he opened the first P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. In 2000, P.F. Changs launched a fast-casual spinoff, Pei Wei Asian Diner, and by 2012 P.F. Changs was a billion-dollar brand with 300 locations. 

With PJK, Fleming says he and his wife, who have lived in Southwest Florida for about seven years and have been involved in several local charitable projects, sought a neighborhood Chinese food place. “But we wanted to elevate it,” he says, 

The couple traveled to New York, Paris and California, studying menus. “We wanted to come up with things you would only see on our menu,” he says. Like grouper cheek bao buns. “We weren’t sure people would like those,” he says of the $18 starter item, “but it’s actually turned out to be one of our best sellers.”

Other menu items at the 152-seat restaurant, designed with a casual coastal vibe, include scallion pancakes with caviar; six kinds of Dim Sum; miso cod; braised short rib; mapo tofu; and half Peking duck. Prices range from $18 for a vegetable low mein dinner entree to $89 for the duck. It’s a comfortable, yet foodie kind of place, Fleming says, and he’s been pleasantly surprised that customers, for the most part, get it — 86ing one worry. “They are using the right spices on the table, they’re using the right hot mustard,” he says. “People aren’t confused about the menu and the concept, which is really big.”

In addition to the menu, Fleming made one decision early on, in location, that’s been a big part of the early success, he believes. That location decision was to go just off tony Fifth Avenue South in Naples, where a restaurateur of Fleming’s stature might have been expected to open a new place. But PJK not being on “the chaos of Fifth,” Fleming says, helps separate the brand from competition. It also means a smaller rent bill, and, of course, access to more of a highly-sought after local commodity: parking spots. 

That last point is no joke. Not only does it provide extra parking for take out business, but a surplus of spots also eliminates a reason longtime locals decide not to go out to eat. “There’s a funny line in restaurants,” Fleming says, that “the perception of a parking problem is worse than actually having a parking problem.” 

Fleming worked in the oil and gas business in Denver prior to getting into restaurants in the early 1980s, when he acquired the rights to the Ruth’s Chris Steak House brand for California, Arizona and Hawaii. His first Ruth Chris was in Beverly Hills.

Back to the latest, PJK Neighborhood Chinese, the initial thought was to grow the concept after testing it in Naples. While that still may happen, the plan, Fleming says, given industry labor shortages, inflation and more, is to grow slow. 

And as worries at the current Naples location loom, Fleming has learned from past experience to always look for ways to improve amid the anxieties. “The model has to be better,” he says. “We have no price flexibility. We are at the top of the market, so we have to be better operators. We have to be flawless.”



Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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