San Antonians may be unfamiliar with Ruby Tuesday restaurants, but thanks to Cathy Amato and her partners, the brand may soon become a household name. The first local incarnation is already up and running on the corner of 281 and Evans Road, pleasantly perched above street tumult in a not yet fully developed shopping area.
On the last day of July, Amato and I met for lunch there to sample the food and talk about her newest business venture. Like most people around here, she, too, knew close to nothing about the Ruby Tuesday chain until her husband showed her an ad placed by the Maryville, Tenn.-based company in the San Antonio Business Journal seeking franchisees in Texas. Since Amato was already a successful franchise owner of multiple Subway restaurants, he thought that she might have an interest in something more upscale. He had eaten at various Ruby Tuesdays while traveling and could vouch for the food, he told her.

“It sounded interesting, but I didn’t act on it,” recalls Amato, a slim and elegant woman and a self-described health nut. “Later, when one of my Subway business partners and I went to a Subway corporate meeting in Hawaii and started talking with the other participants there about what they were doing besides Subway, one of the development agents mentioned that he had opened four Ruby Tuesdays and was very happy with that. He eventually called the corporate office about me, and then they called me.” Things developed from there. She liked the company’s corporate culture and business philosophy and saw it as opportunity to realize a dream. “Anyone who is in the fast food business dreams of owning a full-service restaurant, a place where you can go with your friends, have a bottle of wine and relax,” she says. “Some people I know who had that same dream and tried to realize it by starting from scratch have failed. It’s hard to compete with a brand-new, unknown restaurant. I wanted to do it with a high chance of success, which meant going with a proven brand and a franchise.”

In 2008, Amato; her husband, Charlie Amato, co-founder of the Southwest Business Corporation, and aforementioned Subway partner Rick Riley signed a franchise agreement with Ruby Tuesday Inc. to build and develop five eateries in the San Antonio area in five years. Of the three, Amato is the most heavily invested in the new venture with 50 percent of ownership, which makes her a bit nervous in this economic downturn. But she seems perfectly relaxed at lunch, enjoying a low-calorie soup and removing the bun from one of her mini burgers. The restaurant has an eclectic menu that truly offers something for everybody at moderate prices. Since it opened last December, the traffic congestion on 281 ”has hurt us some,” admits the businesswoman, but the second location, currently under construction at the intersection of Culebra and 1604, promises to be an instant success in a burgeoning area with few restaurants. “I am not making a dime from this,” she notes. “I am taking a huge risk, and I am working for free. Right now lending is tight, and I am working with my bank on financing for the second location. I had to really jump through hoops. Of course, some day I do hope to make money when we get more established and profitable. But if this fails, I can be ruined.” Taking risks, however, is not new to Amato. Back in 1993, she, Riley and a third colleague, Martha Jordan — all of whom worked as franchise agents for Subway — had an “aha!” moment. “Why don’t we buy a couple of these ourselves?” Riley is reported as saying. Why not, indeed? It so happened that two local Subways were not doing well at the time, and their owners wanted to get rid of them. So the three friends formed River Sub LLC and purchased those two properties. Today, they own a total of 46 locations in San Antonio and Austin and are planning for more.

But the road to success is seldom a straight line. The ‘90s were tough, says Amato. “We grew at such a fast rate in the ‘90s, yet were not prepared to support that growth; we didn’t have good brand identification. For three years we experienced declines in sales. All of us were in trouble with debt repayment. I remember Martha and me sitting with a stack of bills deciding which ones we were going to pay because we couldn’t pay them all,” she says. What turned things around in the late ‘90s was the new corporate emphasis on healthy sandwiches and on weight loss, which filled a void in the fast food market. The chain introduced seven sandwiches with less than 6 grams of fat, and Jared Fogle, the guy we have all seen on TV bragging about losing more than 200 pounds by eating Subway sandwiches, made them famous. These changes helped establish the brand in the mind of consumers. But the three San Antonio partners also had the foresight to see the potential of opening restaurants in the underserved areas of the city, such as the East, West and South Sides. And all of those are booming. Asked if she had an official title with River Sub or its sister company in Austin called Lone Star Sub, Amato wrinkles her forehead trying to decide whether she is the president, the CEO or the chairwoman. Finally, she says, laughing: “I am the queen; I am the queen of Subway in San Antonio.”

She has done it all

We often read stories about self-made men, but today there are women who fit that description as well, and Amato is one of them. Though born in San Diego, where her naval officer parents, Erwin and Mary Neatherlin, were stationed, her formative years were all spent in Texas. When she was in seventh grade, the family moved to a farm in La Vernia where the five Neatherlin children enjoyed the company of a menagerie of animals, from dogs and chickens to cows and horses. “And they all had names,” recalls Amato, smiling at the memory. “They were all our pets.” To this day, she remains an animal lover who shares her home with four dogs, three cats and a parrot, and she keeps a horse on her sister’s farm in Floresville. Upon high school graduation, many of her peers married and/or stated working right away, and she pretty much followed suit. After several years of clerical work and some waitressing, she saw a Jack in the Box ad soliciting management trainees and applied. The company was looking to beef up the number of women managers, and she got in easily. Following training, the budding restaurateur became first an assistant manager and later the manager of her first restaurant. The jobs were comprehensive, to say the least. “I have done everything in this business,” she says, “scrubbed parking lots, cleaned restrooms, filtered vats of melted shortening, worked Christmas and Thanksgiving, you name it. You have to. Sometimes there were only two of us in the restaurant.”

Despite the hard work, she felt she had found her niche. A series of promotions followed until she was training the managers and eventually the trainers themselves. Having experienced every level of the organizational chart honed her skills across the board, from scheduling and inventory management to financial statements and the difficult business of hiring and firing. Happy as she was at Jack in the Box, 15 years into her tenure there Amato was lured to Subway by Riley, whom she had met when he, too, worked at Jack. He had formed Subway Development South Central Texas to sell Subway franchises and wanted her on board. A year later, they had their collective aforementioned “aha!” moment, which led to the creation of River Sub. Today, the company employs some 300 people, 97 of whom are in managerial positions. Of those, Amato is proud to point out, 61 percent are women and most — men and women — have been promoted from within the ranks, often individuals who started as “sandwich artists.” As responsible employers, the partners provide paid vacation and health care for all employees who have been with them for at least six months. “The restaurant business allows someone who may not have much formal education to move up and make a good living,” she notes. “We make sure that our employees can have a life and provide for their families. And it’s reflected in people staying with us 10, 15 years — very unusual in this business.”

Riley, who has known Amato for 30 years, describes her as very goal driven. ”If she sets a goal for herself, she will work hard to reach it. That’s certainly beneficial for a business and an asset to any company. She is also a person who gets along with everybody, male or female, and we share similar values about taking care of our employees,” he says. Amato rightly points out that her prominent businessman husband, Charlie, had nothing to do with her Subway success other than being a supportive spouse. (Though she was married before, she prefers not to talk about that first union.) A former marathoner who took part in 10 races, including the famed Boston Marathon, she met Charlie while running in Brackenridge Park, back in 1992. When they married five years later, she took his children under her wing as her own, and their son Marcus is now the proud owner of a Subway franchise as well. Together and separately, the Amatos help a number of child-related causes in the community. On her office wall stands a plaque featuring a large butterfly given to the couple in recognition of their support for the Southwest Mental Health Center, a nonprofit hospital for mentally ill children. That cause is particularly dear to her heart since her youngest brother suffers from schizophrenia.

Supporting the Carver Academy

Amato is also on the board of the area Subway franchisee organization, which is one of the sponsors of the “Go! Kids Challenge” program in the schools designed to combat childhood obesity. In addition, River Sub has promised to provide lunch once a week to the students of the Carver Academy on the East Side, the school founded by former basketball star David Robinson. “And I am going to get Ruby Tuesday to do a nice catered event for the kids once a month,” Amato adds enthusiastically. “When you see someone doing what David is doing, making such a difference in those kids’ lives, you want to help.”

And that’s ultimately what she would like her legacy to be — that she has helped others, made a difference in people’s lives. But as we are wrapping up our lunch, she has hospitality on her mind, which, of course, is also a way of making a difference in people’s lives. Both of us relaxed and chatty, we talk a bit about favorite eateries around town, among other things. Amato says she likes to go to Paesanos in Lincoln Heights mostly because of the warm greetings she gets from the sommelier, known to patrons as Goli. “If you took the picture of that man’s face, it would be what hospitality looks like,” she says. “That’s what I want here. I want people to feel that way when they come to Ruby Tuesday.”