Casting a Spell – Memphis magazine

The first thing you need to know about Rick and Sandy Spell is that they were high school sweethearts. “I was a Navy brat,” says Rick. He was born in base housing at the China Lake Naval Weapons Air Station in California, and, growing up, moved frequently. When he was a teenager, his father was transferred to the Millington Naval Air Station. Sandy is a lifelong Memphian. She says Rick caught her eye one day while she was walking home from Kingsbury High School.

Rick deepened his Memphis roots when he attended the University of Memphis. “I was your classic commuter student,” he says. “I went two and a half years, then dropped out, got married, and had a child. Then I went back when I was 27 and graduated in three semesters. So I was very motivated, but not motivated early. I was educated as an accountant, and was a CPA with Ernst & Whinney. From there, I gravitated towards investment banking.”

Except for a short period in 1990, when Rick was assigned to open a new operation for investment bank Raymond James in St. Petersburg, Florida, the couple have made Memphis their home. “She was from Memphis, and preferred to be here,” he says. “So I came back with Morgan Keegan. Then Morgan Keegan was bought by Raymond James.”

They travel frequently and have maintained households in several different places, including Hacienda Kukulkan, a spectacular beachside property on the Yucatan peninsula just south of Cancun, Mexico, which they recently sold. But their home base for the past 21 years has been in East Memphis.

“Memphis has a certain comfort to it that people don’t realize until they get here,” says Rick. “What’s really interesting is, when you see people who move here from, like, New Jersey that have never been in the South, they don’t really get it. They act like they don’t want to be here — then after a while, it’s very difficult for them to leave. It’s a very comfortable lifestyle. For example, when I was working, I would get off at 4:30. I was heavily involved in competitive water skiing, and I could go skiing two or three days a week after work. Whereas to somebody from New Jersey, that’s just a foreign concept.

“I’m not a guy that sits around and complains about things in Memphis,” he continues. “We don’t want to live someplace where everybody’s the same. So for us, the diversity of the city is good. Does our city have problems? Yes, it does. But, you know, there’s a lot of problems in a lot of different places.”

“For me, it’s home,” says Sandy. “I have an older sister I take care of. She’s in assisted living, and I’m happy to do that. And, of course, we’re huge Tiger fans — we just absolutely love all the Tiger sports! I’ve lived here all my life. I can go anywhere in the city and run into friends.”

This is the Spells’ third home in the Bluff City. It was originally constructed in the late 1990s by builder Jim Greene. When Rick and Sandy had outgrown their home of 12 years, which was also in East Memphis, a friend told them Greene was thinking about selling. “He built the rest of the homes on the street,” says Sandy. “His wife designed it, and they lived here for two years. It was not on the market when we bought it.”

“We were also considered remodeling our other home,” says Rick. “It was time to do something, and this became a compromise home that I think has worked out really well.”

The home was originally created in the French Provincial style and featured recovered wood beams for the rustic look. Sandy wanted a clean slate. “In the previous home, we had a designer,” she says “And while I liked the house and the finished product, it wasn’t me. And so I asked Rick to let me do it. It’ll take me longer, because I don’t have the resources, but I’ll find them.

When the Spells sold the other house, they got rid of everything. “I let friends come and take what they wanted,” says Sandy. “I had quite a few things left. When the gentleman came who was going to move us — just a mattress to sleep on, my refrigerator, and a washer and dryer — I told him he could have the rest. Well, come to find out, he was a young fellow who had just bought a new home with his wife. He was thrilled! So he brought some people over, and they packed up everything — dishes, pots, pans. So we came here and we had no furniture. We had two little chairs to sit on. I think they were even lawn chairs.”

The Spells moved their mattress into an upstairs bedroom and got to work creating a new household. The first item on the agenda was building a new bedroom suite on the north side of the house. The biggest requirement of the new bathroom was a great tub, inspired by their Yucatan home, Hacienda Kukulkan. “That tub was so big, people who visited would pile in and take pictures, three or four at a time,” says Sandy.

This tub is more practical, but still lovely. It is surrounded by columns, and features a stained- glass installation on the ceiling which was inspired by the ocean views of Rick’s native California. Beyond the bathroom is the home’s unique feature: a custom-designed, walk-in closet. “How many people say their closet is their favorite room in the house?” laughs Sandy.

Sandy found the custom closet company in St. Petersburg, Florida. The construction of the space took three days, including dedicated shoe shelves, glass-fronted wardrobes, and a central island dresser. “It’s successful, because I’m very messy, but this keeps me neat,” says Rick.

The home’s spacious front room is decked out in furniture from the Kreiss Collection. The 75-year-old family business is famous for creating the “California casual” look. Loren Kreiss, who relaunched the brand in 2017, defined the look to the Los Angeles Times as “natural materials, varied textures, generously proportioned items, and things that are not aggressively designed.”

“When I walked in the Kreiss store [in West Hollywood, California], I loved everything. I had a hard time choosing,” says Sandy. “It is inviting and comfortable. I want people to feel at home when they visit.”

The dining room table is also from Kreiss. It is a massive chunk of marble that took six former football players to move into the house. The floor had to be reinforced to keep it from collapsing into the crawl space.

The Spells transformed the previous owners’ breakfast nook into a comfy den. “They had a little dinette table in here,” Sandy recalls. “I said, ‘No, this is perfect. It’s cozy. It’s close to the kitchen.”

Rick says this is the room that gets the most use. “Every home becomes an apartment. So the question is what is our apartment? This is the room where we sit to just chill out, do nothing, and watch television.”

A line of doors opens to the meticulously landscaped backyard. “What we have here is, in the right weather, a very indoor-outdoor home,” says Rick. “It has the feeling of a California, or even a Hawaiian, home. That’s actually what we were shooting for.”

The centerpiece of the back yard is a giant fountain, surrounded by azalea bushes and dogwood trees. Opening the doors makes a great space for parties — although the lightly colored Kreiss furniture is “not red wine friendly.”

The couple say they haven’t done much entertaining since Rick retired from the investment banking business — except, don’t call it that. “Retirement’s a really vulgar word to me,” says Rick. “I left my investment banking job because it was time for me to leave. I had trained some superstars, and I’m just not a believer in staying around forever. So, I fired myself, and they’ve done great — and that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

“He knew he couldn’t retire,” says Sandy. “He was constantly looking for businesses, because he knew he wanted to continue to work.”

“What I tell people is, I buy cash flows,” says Rick. “I really don’t care what type they are, as long as they’re legal. That was my training — being able to evaluate the risk/reward. So when I started buying restaurants, the president of Morgan Keegan, was like, ‘Rick, are you okay? Is there something wrong? Why are you doing this?’ Because it’s so risky.”

When Rick bought the Brookhaven Pub and Grill, he unexpectedly found a new passion. “We’ve done really well with it, because so much of doing well with it is how you purchase it,” he says. “Now, having said that, owning restaurants as people that don’t cook is, um, unique. You have to rely on management and people. We like to think that we have great managers, and we let them do what they do. We’re good at business. They’re good at restaurants. I think the thing that was surprising to us, that we never thought about, was how much we’ve enjoyed the people.”

The Spell Restaurant Group expanded to Florida’s Gulf Coast with the purchase of George’s, a popular seaside eatery in Alys Beach. The couple’s daughter, Christy Spell Terry, moved to the coast and transformed the nearby La Cocina into LaCo, a chef-driven Latin coastal eatery. The Spell Group owns two restaurants in Rosemary Beach: Edwards, which offers fine dining with vacation casual attire; and La Crema, where you can get tapas or dessert. The Saltwater Grill in Panama City is built around a 25,000-gallon saltwater aquarium.

In 2019, the Spell Restaurant Group rescued the struggling Babalu chain. They made the Overton Square store in Memphis the group’s flagship, where a painting from the Spells’ Mexican home now hangs behind the hostess stand.

“Babalu in Memphis was such a great fit, culturally, because all the people there were so good,” says Rick. “They had gone through a bankruptcy and they had no idea it was happening. Suddenly, they read in the paper that they’re bankrupt. I was scared to death about what I might lose, but in the discussions I had with the people, everybody I dealt with was just phenomenal — very motivated, great people. We’ve kept virtually everyone on there. So I don’t call myself a restaurateur, because if you throw me in the kitchen, I’m lost. But I manage the business, provide capital, and allow the experts to do what they do.”

Far from retirement, the Spells have embraced the fast-paced camaraderie of the restaurant world. “I recognize it’s a tough industry, but it’s also rewarding,” says Sandy. “It warms my heart when I see all the seats filled, and people having fun, making special memories at our stores. In fact, our slogan has become, ‘We sell fun!’”