Craig Peden always knew he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, Paul, the veteran Fort Myers restaurateur. The younger Peden fell in love with the business at the age of 7, when he would wash dishes every Saturday in exchange for a free lunch at his father’s then restaurant, Smitty’s Steakhouse, in Fort Myers. “I can remember all my life, wanting to go to work with my father in this business, never dreaming of anything else,” Peden says.
After graduating from Johnson & Wales University’s culinary school in Charleston, South Carolina, and the University of Central Florida, Peden returned to Fort Myers to work alongside his father. The pressure he faced as the son of the owner never bothered Peden. Like his father, he had a deep passion for the work. “The only thing in my blood is the restaurant business,” he says.
But it took Peden a little longer to figure out how to work well with his father. Today, they’re a dynamic team. “For the most part, we think about the same solutions 98 percent of the time,” Peden says. But they do have different personalities. “He’s a little more subdued than I am, and I’m a little more outspoken,” Peden says. And when Peden started, he butted heads with his father quite a bit. “I thought I knew better and didn’t listen,” Peden says.
Within about three years, however, Craig saw the error of his ways. He realized he had much to learn from his father, a second-generation restaurateur who took over Smitty’s from his own father in 1972. Peden began to absorb important lessons his father taught him about management, leadership, strategy and how to survive long term in the notoriously cutthroat restaurant business.
“When I was about 25 years old, I actually apologized to my father and said, ‘Boy, you’ve been right this whole time,’” Peden recalls. “I kind of woke up and smelled the coffee and realized that he’d been doing this for over 25 years at that point, and I was still just a pup and didn’t know as much as I thought I did.”
That realization would pay big dividends for the family later on.
When Paul Peden developed the concept for Rib City, a chain of barbecue restaurants, his son embraced the idea. Over the past 25 years, Rib City has been the focus of their business; the Pedens even went as far as to abandon their Smitty’s concept, which began in Venice, Florida, in the 1940s, so they could better concentrate on Rib City. That change in direction was the right move. Today, Rib City has grown to 33 locations all over the country, including Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and Utah, in addition to Florida.
Peden has spearheaded that expansion as the company’s operations chief. He credits his father for the success he’s enjoyed. “He’s driven me and helped me become who I am today,” Peden says. “Without him, I would not be the same person.” GB
FAST FACTS: Craig Peden, president of Rib City
Residence: Fort Myers
Hometown: Fort Myers
Education: Johnson & Wales University, University of Central Florida
Work History: Started helping out in his father Paul's restaurants at age 7.
Other: Along with his father, he also owns the Veranda restaurant in Fort Myers.