NEON & PAINT: The Stories behind the Signs


One eye on the road, the other on the lookout for a beckoning sign. Drive through the South like this, and you’re guaranteed to discover a new spot for lunch. Hand-painted or glowing neon, roadside signs for restaurants and shops are Southern icons. Meet the people behind a few of these everyday monuments.

Martha Lou's Kitchen

C-cap-2Car dealerships used to line Morrison Drive on the outskirts of downtown Charleston. In 1983 Martha Lou Gadsden bought an empty gas station and transformed the one-story cinderblock building into her own restaurant. “The first day I made $10 selling hotdogs and sodas,” laughs Mrs. Gadsden. “We moved on from there to lima beans and rice and chicken, and then we moved on up and up until I got a full dinner.”

MarthaLouGadsenMartha Lou Gadsden

“The children said they like pink, and pink is for love.”

Gadsden decided to paint her restaurant pink. “The children said they like pink, and pink is for love,” she says. She invited Charles DeSaussare, a local painter, to finish it off, telling him, “Charles, I just want something on my walls.” DeSaussare improvised with a locally inspired scene of waves, fish, palmetto trees, and the cable spans of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.

Magazine Deli

R-CapRainbow umbrellas, porch furniture, and signs for ya-ka-mein, hot tamales, and soft-serve—the Magazine Deli sno-ball stand encapsulates the spirit of New Orleans street cuisine. Owner Maurice Haynes ran a school for aspiring ice cream truck drivers before he found a spot for sale on busy Magazine Street. “I had been living in this area all my life and this spot has been here about twenty years,” explains Haynes. “I always had a vision for it. I always wanted this spot.” When the stand he coveted came up for sale, Maurice traded his pink ice cream truck for a permanent location.

“I always had a vision for it. I always wanted this spot.”

“I lost two trucks to the hurricane and I sold one. I just thought I’d branch out and try it on a larger scale,” says Haynes. Today, in addition to ice cream, he sells sno-balls, frozen cups (also known locally as “zips” or “huckabucks”), nachos, and candy apples. “I like just everything about it,” he says. “I’m in heaven right now.”

Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q

A-capA pig dressed as a waiter smiles and offers a barbecue sandwich in an outstretched hand. It’s Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q—“The Original,” as the script below the pig reads. Larger than life and rendered in bold, eye-catching colors, barbecue signs like this dot the South.

“Daddy used to say your best advertising is the sandwich you just wrapped and put over that counter.”

As a child in Cumberland City, Tennessee, Sykes learned to smoke hogs from Buck Hampton, an African American farmer who lived nearby and knew his way around a pit. After hog killings, Hampton taught Sykes “the dynamic of just salt, meat, and fire.”

According to Van Sykes, the second-generation owner of Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q, his father built a successful business with “country boy logic.” And the restaurant was integrated from the beginning. Bob Sykes would tell critical customers, “I go back there at night and count that money, and I’ll be doggone if I can find out which [money] came from a black man or a white man. I need it all.”


UP NEXT: Meet Phila Hach, 2015 winner of the Ruth U. Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award.

This feature was produced with oral history interviews, audio, and photographs from the Southern Foodways Alliance.