52 South Second St. (at Union)
Memphis, TN (901) 523-2746
Essay by Joe York
In Memphis , trying to find the Rendezvous. We pull into a gas station and ask the man behind the counter how to get there. He says “where?” We ask him for the phone book. Nothing under “Restaurants.” In the Memphis Yellow Pages ” Restaurants ” are just places that serve food. The Rendezvous doesn’t serve food. It serves barbecue, and it is under that heading that we find it. 52 South Second Street. But finding it didn’t mean we’d found it.
Now we’re in Arkansas . We exit right and take two lefts. Over the river, again. Second Street. We park and start walking the wrong way.
A man mailing a letter.
“Excuse me, sir. Do you know where the Rendezvous is?” He walks us back to the corner and points south down Second. “It’s down the street there, but you can’t go in that way. You gotta go around back through the alley.”
At the end of the alley, The Peabody. To the right a sign,< Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous. Above it, four more floors, built of brick stuck into which are two stacks spewing rib smoke. Below it, a locked iron gate. A sign behind the gate says it won’t turn in its hinges for another hour.
We turn to leave, to walk and wait. The sound of metal turning on metal. A man with a white apron around his waist and the tan plastic tip of a Swisher Sweet tight in his teeth holds the gate open.
“Y’all from out of town?”
“Go downstairs and tell ’em y’all are from out of town.”
SUBJECT: Nick Vergo
DATE: October 12, 2002
INTERVIEWER: Brian Fisher
The people that have taken barbecue, the art of cooking barbecue or the skills of cooking barbecue in a sense commercial probably are restaurateurs, or people whose family had been in the restaurant business and may have had someone that helped in the family restaurant business that they liked to barbecue.
The Rendezvous is a perfect example. The Rendezvous never opened up to be a barbecue restaurant. My father had a vegetable meat and three place on Union Avenue called Wimpy’s. He was partners with his brother in law and they were selling meat loaf and mashed potatoes and they had a hamburger. On the hamburger you could get mustard, pickle, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, Durkees. You know, a thousand different things.
Right across the street from him was a Crystal. He was selling like ten hamburgers a day and, then, the Crystalthey were carrying ten out at a time and there were a thousand people. They were selling ten thousand hamburgers a day and he was selling ten and he was giving people all these options.
He and his brother in law didn’t get along. Well, they got along they just had a difference of views. My father said “I’m going to open up: I’m going to bake hams and sell beer.” Make a ham sandwich and sell beer. He went in the basement of the building where Wimpy’s was and opened up the Rendezvous.
There was an elevator shaft in the building that was not used anymore so he built a smoker. He was buying his hams, cured hams, from Louis Feinberg, Feinberg Packing Company. So he started a fire, put the hams up and smoked his hams to give them a little more flavor. And, you could buy a small beer or a tall beer, a 10 oz. or 12 oz. beer. He said if “I open up my ham sandwich place, I’m not going to give people any options.” You’re going to get it on rye bread only and, your only options, there would be two options. You could either get it with cheese or without cheese or you could get it with mustard or without mustard and that was it. He served it with kosher pickles on the side and a couple peperonccinis. Or, he’d make you a plate. He’d slice the cheese up; make it into little sticks; put some ham on it, pickles and peppers; put it on the table and that was it.
Back then, downtown was the only shopping area of town. People were one car families. On Saturday’s, during the week the people that worked downtown, the men that worked downtown, the window dressers, the sales clerks. They’d all come down to the Rendezvous, have a sandwich and a beer waiting for their wives to come pick them up in the only car in the family.
Eventually, it got to be a little bit nicer place. The wives would come down; they’d have a sandwich with them and that’s all you could get, ham sandwich. He had ham, cheese, and salami. The same salami now is the same salami that we started with, made in St. Louis by the John Volpe Company. I’m not a big salami eater but I don’t want to eat anybody else’s salami cause this one is so good.
He was open just for dinner. It was a snack bar. Rendezvous Snack Bar was the original name of the restaurant. On Saturdays, it was shopping day. The husbands would drive the wives downtown. The wives would go shopping. The guys would go down to the Rendezvous and have a ham sandwich and a beer. Television wasn’t hardly in. This was in the late forties and the early part of the fifties; wasn’t television. Guys just sitting around, eating ham sandwiches and drinking beer waiting for their wives to get through shopping and go back home.
Mr. Feinberg said “you need to expand your menu a little bit.” Dad said, “I know that but I don’t really know what to do.” So he got some chickens and baked chickens, cooked them on the grill. (He) did the same thing (as they do with ribs)- 18 inches off the fire. Cooked chickens on there. He couldn’t give them away. Nobody wanted barbecue chicken, grilled chicken. He got oysters on the 1/2 shell. He said, “I think oysters are great.” Our flower beds at our house, my parents house, the beds were made with those shells from the oysters. Lasted about a year. The oysters were just a pain. (He) Wasn’t selling very many of them.
Mr. Feinberg said, “Well, I’ve got these ribs.” He (Mr. Charlie Vergo) said, “I don’t know very much about ribs.” He had a guy that worked for him whose name was Little John. Little John, I don’t know that he was barbecue man, or not, but he know how to cook ribs.
We cook our ribs over a very hot fire. We cook 18 inches off the fire and the fire is as hot as we can get it. We cool it down to keep it from catching fire. But we want it, generally, to be as hot as we can. We want to actually sear the ribs and keep the juiciness of them. We don’t cook slow. We want to cook our ribs in an hour and fifteen minutes.
Other people talk about we cook them hours and hours and hours. Well, they’re cooking at such low temperatures, if we left our ribs in there for that long, they’d just be charcoal when they got through.
My father’s father was a restaurant man, made chili during the depression- chili dog with our cole slaw, the cole slaw that we have on the table, a mustard based slaw for a nickel. That was the same idea that my father had with the ham sandwich. He was going to sell you a hell of a ham sandwich and not really make very much on the ham sandwich. But, if you came in and had three or four beers with it, he’d kill you on the beer. He was going to make his money selling beer.
My grandfather was going to make his money selling Coca-Colas and pies. He was a baker by trade and just baked a hell of a pie. You’d come in a get a hot dog for a nickel, a foot long hot dog for a nickel, with chili and slaw. Cokes were a dime. Coke was more than the hot dog was. He made a penny a hot dog, but he made 3 or 4 cents on the coke. He was just selling hundreds and hundreds and thousands and thousands of hot dogs and lots of Cokes and the pie. .35 cents for a piece of pie, well the pie didn’t’ cost him but about a nickel to make. A slice of pie was only about a nickel. That was the same idea that my father had. Get them to come in for the sandwiches and sell them a beer or a Coca-Cola. He made money off the coke.
Burger King is a perfect example. They’ve got 11 items for .99 cents. You can go and get all 11 items and you’re out 11 bucks, $10.89. You think, well god, I got 2 sacks of food for $11. For $11, if you got two of their combos which is let’s say the double cheeseburger, a large coke, and a large fry, you get two of those, that’s $10 dollars right there.
They’re making their money off of the Cokes and the french fries is what it boils down to. Cokes and the french fries are where the money is. Coke cost them a dime or fifteen cents and they sell it for a dollar forty nine.
It was the same thought of my father. He said, I’m going to get them in here, get them to buy a sandwich and get them to buy a coke.
Mr. Feinberg came along, said “you need to try these ribs out. They’re really good. They’re loin ribs. They come off the pork chop.” There’re spare ribs that come off the belly and they’re called back ribs because they come off the back. My father says “Well, I don’t know very much about cooking ribs. But we’re just going to put them on the grill and cook them just like we did the chicken. Get them done. Take them off and serve them.”
Little John was a vinegar man. He said, “You need to have vinegar on your ribs because it makes them tender and it helps keep the fire down a little bit.” He just knew. He’d been around. Probably been over to somebody else’s house and said I like the way that barbecue tasted and I like it because of the vinegar. Our slaw is vinegar, mustard, and sugar.
My father said, all right, now we need to season it. Well, my grandfather made chili. Chili’s got salt, pepper, bay leaf, cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper, and oregano. It’s kind of a Greek chili. He said, “I’ll mix that seasoning up, the same thing that we put in the chili, cause the chili tasted good. It tastes good because of the seasoning. The seasoning would good on the ribs.” They put the seasoning on the ribs; tasted delicious. Served them to the table.
“Charlie, these ribs are delicious but you’re calling them barbecue ribs and they’re not red. They need to have that red.” So he went and got a container of paprika and added it to it. Stirred it up. It was red and that’s what we have today.
You Eat with Your Eyes
I eat barbecue almost every day. I think that there are some great, great barbecue places in town. I think any one of them on any particular day can be great and on any particular day they can all be good. You go to Tops Barbecue; they’ve got thirteen locations all over town. They’ve never closed a store. They’ve got a great cheeseburger and a great barbecue sandwich.
I used to love Ms. Payne’s. I thought Ms. Payne’s sliced pork shoulder sandwich on white bread with her slaw and hot sauce; I don’t know that it could get any better. When I was- not a little kid- when I was in my middle teens, old enough to drive, about old enough, my friends were driving- we fished a lot out Sommerville. We’d take Macon Road back to get to Memphis. Just inside the Fayette County/Shelby County line was a black church. On Saturday’s and Sunday’s after church- on Saturday’s they didn’t have church, they played softball all day- on Sunday’s they played softball and hardball. But, they cooked barbecue every single Saturday and Sunday. For .75 cents you’d get a sandwich that you’d have to hold with two hands. It was just fabulous.
Pork is a great item to eat anyway. It’s a great, great product.
In the Forties, he (Mr. Charlie Vero) was in Wimpy’s. In ’48, he left Wimpy’s. He worked both places. He worked at Wimpy’s. He worked at The Rendezvous. During the mornings, after he quit working at Wimpy’s and went to work at the Rendezvous- the Rendezvous didn’t open until 4:30 in the afternoon and there wasn’t a lot of prep to these hams. He’d serve the ham cold. So he had the mornings free. He’d deliver produce for Canally Food Services. He worked for D. Kenally, for Chris Canally’s father. This was in the fifties.
Not Mr. Charlie’s Only Job
No. He had three children. That was going to be his career but he had to finance it and support his family through another means. He didn’t jump into the ham sandwich business and all of a sudden that was all he was doing. He was delivering produce for the Kenally food service. The very late part of the fifties and the early sixties is when the ribs came around. We moved to this location in 1968. We started out in the November 6th Street alley, between Main and Second. In 1968, we moved to this location which is exactly one alley east, between Second and Third. So we were between Main and Second. Then we moved to between Second and Third. The first location, we were on the east side of the ally and at this location, we’re on the west side of the alley.
Ham Sandwiches Take-out or Sit Down?
It was in a basement. That bar that you sit at right here is the same bar that he had at the restaurant. It was a sit down place. When I was 10, 11, 12, 13 years old, I used to go down to the restaurant with my father every Saturday. I’d come downtown. We’d get downtown. He’d open at 12:30. We’d get downtown about 10. In the very beginning, my mother would drop us off because she still needed the car. Then my father would catch a ride home. I’d come downtown and help him sort the money- put the quarters in the quarter slot- the dimes in the dimes the cash register- sort the Ones. Then, I’d leave and I just hung around downtown as a kid.
I don’t remember making a lot of sandwiches to go. Most of the people that came in- and I could be wrong, he may have sold a thousand of them- I just don’t remember myself whether we sold that many to go. A lot of people would come in and eat one and maybe get one to go.
It had 70 seats. The window dressers from all the department stores, Goldsmith’s, Gerber’s, Lowenstein’s were all downtown. The guys that decorated the windows on Main Street, when they’d break down a design they’d bring a lot of their stuff down and hang it up and that’s how we started- for atmosphere.
Mr. Nick Vergo in the Restaurant
I started when I was just a little kid. I don’t know for a fact that the first time I came down and spent the Saturday with my father was before 10 or after 10, but it wasn’t very far gone from 10. I started working full time in 1970. I was 18 years old, right out of high school. Graduated from high school. Took a week off. Went to Panama City. Came back and went to work. So I’ve been here thirty-two years full time. Some people will argue with that. That’s the way I see it.
The whole industry of travel has changed. Everybody is traveling now. The Rendezvous, there were two possibly, three reasons why the Rendezvous became popular and grew to what it is today; excluding the fact that we think out food’s excellent and it’s a popular place and it’s a nice place to go and it’s just a great American restaurant. Every city has several places that you just have to go to and, in Memphis, we’re one of them. In Boston, you go to Anthony’s Pier 4, Jimmy’s Harborside, or the No Name Grill. There’s just places when you go to different cities. You go to Miami, you’ve got to go to Joe’s Stone Crab. Every city has got those and we think that we’re one of those places for Memphis.
Memphis, at one time, was a hub for Delta Airlines. Before the hub system, they almost started here- Delta Airlines did. There were a lot of layovers for the pilots and the flight attendants. They stayed across the street at the Peabody (Hotel). We were right across the street from the Peabody. They’d get to their hotel room. They’d want a beer and a sandwich and go to movie. They’d come to The Rendezvous. They’d get on their flight the next day. “We just had a big old ham sandwich and a beer at this place down in a basement. Next time you’re in Memphis and you’re going to stay at the Peabody go down… ” Well that of course was very significant. That (The Peabody Hotel) was the crew hotel and it was until probably about the last part of the seventies. It’s not so much anymore. I think they (flight crews) stay at the Radisson now.
The University of Mississippi. Probably Archie Manning’s eaten here more than any football player in the history of Ole Miss and still does. Oxford (Lafayette) was a dry county, completely dry. You could not even buy beer. You go to the next county and you can buy hot beer or you could drive to the next county and you’re in Memphis and have cold beer. So there was really not much of a reason for anybody to stay in Oxford- to party. You had to go buy hot beer and then by the time you cool it down, everybody was pretty much over with. So Memphis became, what the town square and the city of Oxford are now to Ole Miss, it used to be Memphis.
Y’all have your own movie theaters now. It’s actually become a city. I guess is what I’m trying to say- where Memphis was… You wanted to see first run movies, I’m sure that there was drive-in or a theater in Oxford. This (Memphis) was bigger, better, and there was cold beer.
People came from all over the United States to go to school at the University of Mississippi. That helped. These people grew up. They became responsible business people. They traveled- that owned their own companies. They’d bring their people into Memphis. It’s like just a growth thing.
Kemmons Wilson, the founder of Holiday Inns. Kemmons Wilson is to the hotel-motel industry is what Henry Ford was to the automobile industry- standardized it. Built it. The reservation system that he developed was the standard for everybody. Kemmons Wilson built more hotels probably than anybody in the history of the business. Whenever people came in from out of town, from all over the world to visit and talk business with Kemmons, they came here and ate. So that helped. People in the hotel business tell other people, “oh, you’re on your way to Memphis… ” Mr. Kemmons was good to us.
There was time when Holiday Inns was in a bit of financial difficulties. Kemmons Wilson and whoever else was there said, “If you’re out of town on business, you have to eat at Holiday Inn restaurants. You can’t you’re customers out anywhere else unless you’re in Memphis at The Rendezvous. You can take them to The Rendezvous.” Mr. Kemmons was her the other day.
Evolution of Barbecue
I’ve never really been anywhere else… I’ve never been to Kansas City and had barbecue and I’ve never been to North Carolina and had barbecue. I’ve been to Birmingham Alabama and Tuscaloosa and eaten at Dreamland, of course, and I’ve eaten at the Dreamland in Mobile. I think that it’s fine. I think that they’re as simple to barbecue as what we were to ham sandwiches. You get ribs, and white bread, and sauce, and that’s it. Where, you came to The Rendezvous; you got a ham sandwich, on rye bread and you could either get cheese or not, or you could get mustard on it. They made it simple. Of course they’ve expanded it and changed it a little bit. I think that you might could get potato salad and beans with it now.
I’ve never been anywhere else where I though anybody’s barbecue was really any good. I think that every place that I’ve been in Memphis has got good barbecue and at times their barbecue can be great. It’s the same as ours. I don’t know much about anybody else’s barbecue. I know that the taste and love of barbecue is a national, maybe even a worldly thing now. I just don’t think that you can get it any better than you can get it right here, unless you go to somebody’s house in the Delta somewhere. Once you get out of the Delta, there’s not barbecue as far as I’m concerned.
Standardization of Recipes at The Rendezvous
The seasoning has always been the same. That shake that we put on our ribs is basically… it was never actually standardized because we made it here until probably the very beginning of 1980. Nothing was ever measured. We had a big copper kettle and you got in with your arms and your hands. You’d add the salt to it, and then you’d add some pepper to it, and you’d stir it with your hands. Then you’d add the pimento to it. You’d stir it with your hands. Then you’d add the oregano to it and you’d stir it. Then you got that flavor with the rest of the ingredients except for the paprika and then you added the paprika to until you got the color that you wanted it.
That was never, ever, standardized until we decided we wanted to retail it. We tried for a while to go out and buy little jars and mix up the seasoning and put it in the jars and try to put a weight on it. We did it for a while, but it was caking up. We were going through it fast here at the restaurant. We’d make a batch and in three or four days, it would be gone. There’s a little more technology to putting seasoning in a jar then what we thought it was.
So we went to a company called Flavorite which is Newly Weds Foods now. They’re in Mississippi; they’re your neighbors. We worked with them and it took us about six months for them to watch us make it- get some idea of our ingredients and actually what we do. So now they make it for us. So that’s standardized.
Until probably the middle part of the ’80’s, the early to middle part of the ’80’s, we never had barbecue sauce on the table in the restaurant. Barbecue sauce was not an option until we came out with pork chops. We thought that the pork chops needed a little more flavor and a little more sauce. Pork chops can be very dry. The loin is probably the leanest part of the hog. That’s why our ribs are really good, because they’re not real fatty. You have to have fat for flavor. That’s why we love butter and cream so much because there’s a lot of fat. We don’t’ want our ribs to be too lean because they will dry. It (fat) adds moisture. It adds flavor. It adds taste. So we decided that we’ll have to have something to put with these pork chops. If we’d have used a pork tender, which is a very nice tender juicy piece of meat, if we’d have cooked pork tender instead of pork loin, we may not, up to this day, have sauce.
We put vinegar and water on our ribs, put the seasoning on it, and served it to the table. They (customers) said, “we want some barbecue sauce.” We don’t have barbecue sauce. We ended up having pork chops and then people would say I want some sauce that you’ve got on the pork chops. In the very beginning, we were such purists and such jerks we said “No, you’re going to have them our way and that’s the only way that you can get them and you’re going to make me mad and I’m going to get mad at you.” We finally said “alright we’re going to put some sauce on the table but we’re not going to give it to them hot. Put cold sauce on it.”
You’ve got to take care of your customers.
James Coney Island Conversation
Big place, downtown Houston. I’ve been there. Owned by Greeks. Pretty much the same business that my grandfather had. My grandfather didn’t just sell hot dogs. It was his number one seller; he’d sell thousands of them. It was a meat and two place similar to what Wimpy’s was. Back in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, if you had a restaurant, well you raised your animals right out back. My grandfather raised goats and chickens. He’d kill these goats, put them on the menu as roast beef. People’d say that’s the best roast beef that I’ve ever had.
The hot dog place that you’re talking about (James Coney Island, Houston, Texas). I was just amazed there one day, cause we did the same thing here. We didn’t have fountain drinks until probably they middle to late ’70’s. You get a 6 and 1/2 ounce bottle of Coke. That’s it. We’d go through 150-200 cases of Cokes. Well, that’s pretty nice. We had a ramp you could roll them down. Well, it was a bitch getting them back up, the empties back up.
So we went to fountain drinks. It’s certainly more economical. More profitable and you don’t a hundred and fifty empty cases of Coca-Colas sitting around. We needed the space. I thought that we went through a lot of Coca-Colas until I went to that hot dog place in Houston. They had ten times more Cokes. I would assume that now they probably get a fountain drink now and they make hamburgers now. I remember they put hot dogs on a board. It’s kind of like Sonic. They’d put hot dogs on a board and slide them down and they’d dress them up and let them go.
I think the hot dog would be a great item. You can’t get a good hot dog.
Barbecue Evolution Continued
We used to store our ribs at the Kenalley Food Service, called Tennessee Quick Foods. They had huge freezer space. We’d buy our ribs by the truck load, which was 1,100 boxes, 33,000 pounds. When the price was right, we’d store them there. I’d have to go in my pickup truck and get 50 boxes at a time and bring them back.
Where the Blue Monkey is going to put up a new restaurant, it used to be the south end. Right next to it was a beer joint- black beer joint. I imagine it was for all the people who worked in these warehouses around it. The man cooked ribs and barbecue right out on the street and on Friday’s he’d cook.
Of course I’m probably going to say in this interview that “It was the best barbecue that I’ve ever had” a thousand times. Like I said, at any given time, you can have a sandwich that you go, “I don’t want to ever eat anything else in my life but this sandwich.” But that’s the way he was. He probably didn’t cook 50 pounds of food. Make him a couple of hundred sandwiches or a hundred sandwiched or a couple of ribs sandwiches.
I never did understand that rib sandwich. You go into Mrs. Payne’s, you get a slice of bread. You get four rib bones. You get slaw on top of it with the sauce. I just told her, “why don’t you put some beans on top of it?” She said, “I don’t have beans.” I said “OK, well that’s why.” I’m sure, if she did, she’d put it right on top. Well, you’d eat the ribs. Throw the ribs away and then you had this wonderful slice of bread with all the sauce and the juice.
(Tape side break)
(The little corner shops) I don’t know where they get all their potato chip bags. You go to Ms. Payne’s you get your sandwiches to go they come in a potato chip bag. Where are all these potato chip bags coming from?
There’re a lot of companies, I don’t know how many now. But you have Brim, Southern Popcorn Company that make- they do popcorn, and chips, and pork rinds. I guess when somebody’s doesn’t sell. There’s always this “I’ve got this great flavor for potato chips” and they order 10,000 bags and they sell a thousand of them. They want to get rid of the bags. Ms. Payne knew what to do with them, put a sandwich in them and a rib sandwich in them.
There are some great barbecue places in Memphis.
Perpetuate the Myth
I think that today, even though the industry, the restaurant industry, the barbecue restaurant industry has changed somewhat. It’s not a mom and pop kind of place anymore. It has gotten to be big business, but it still can be a very small, local, colorful, place.
People come to Memphis and they still come down here and get great ribs and I think they still go to Neely’s and get a great barbecue sandwich. They still go to Interstate and get a great barbecue sandwich. They can go to Corky’s and get a great barbecue sandwich. The Barbecue Shop on Madison; Leonard’s is still great. Top’s, I’m telling you. For $5.05 you get a jumbo barbecue sandwich, you get two orders French fries, and a Coca-Cola. I mean it’s just a bargain. It is very economical.
The Central Barbecue shop that used to be at the old little Pizza Hut place on Central Avenue. They’ve only been open a year. They’re doing all the business they can get. There just killing them over there- right over by the fairground. I assume Ms. Payne’s is doing all right. I haven’t been by there in so long. It got to where you didn’t know if they were going to be open. I’m probably going to leave here tonight and go by there and get a sandwich.
Volumes and Size
I can tell you how many boxes of ribs we go through every week. You buy boxes of shoulders. According to who you bought them from and according to the weight of the box. It’s not something… That may be what makes this a great business. You’re not dealing with something as refined and sophisticated as the growing, killing, and packaging of hogs as become.
It’s and industry now. There’s not any small farmers out there. It’s the Smithfield’s, and the Farmlands, and the Brookfield’s, and the Tyson’s that control this market now. You still don’t know how much a shoulder’s going to weigh when you get it and you still don’t know how much your ribs going to weigh. You know that those ribs… We use 2 and quarter down ribs which means each slab will average between two and two and a quarter. They will be about two and eighth pounds each. But the box is not going to be thirty pounds.
And shoulders are even worse. You just never know if they’re going to come packed two to a box, four to a box. You don’t know how big they’re going to be. You’re moving shoulders around your freezer, you pick a few that weigh about forty pounds and then, same size box, you grab one and go whoa. I got me a deal here. Oh no you didn’t. You’re still paying for it. Paying for it by weight, not by box.
We may very well have been the first restaurant, business to ship fully cooked prepared food overnight. It was a strange way we got started. We kind of got into it the same way we got into the ribs.
Twenty years ago, maybe even a little longer than that, Bill Cosby, the comedian, he was signed by the Hilton hotel chain. It was the Las Vegas Hilton, you go see Bill Cosby. Hilton said “we’re going to have to put you on the road to go to our other hotels and do a show”- a little tour.
One afternoon, about 2:30 in the afternoon, I’m here sitting right here and here comes Bill Cosby and his wife Camille come walking down the steps. They’ve got their tennis togs on. They sit down and they eat with us. He stays ’til eight o’clock- 7:30-8 o’clock. He gets on the phone and calls every employees’ family at home- does his Fat Albert routine on the phone. Says, “yes it’s really me. It’s Bill Cosby.” I want you to speak to my mother, my wife; talked to everybody in the restaurant. Went back and cooked. They loved The Rendezvous.
He’s back in Las Vegas. A customer of ours, Charlie Smith is in Las Vegas, at the Las Vegas Hilton. He’s at the Bill Cosby show. Bill Cosby’s going, “Anybody here from Schenectady, New York? Anybody here from Houston, Texas? Anybody here from Memphis?” He raised his hand and said “yeahhhh.” “I was just in Memphis and had some barbecue ribs at the Rendezvous and there the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. I’d kill for some right now.”
My uncle Pete was a Delta Airlines employee, worked for Delta when it was Chicago Southern when it merged with Delta Crop Dusting. He’d been there forever. He calls up my uncle Pete and says “You’re not going to believe it. Bill Cosby just gave you a helluva plug up on the stage.” He said, he’d love some ribs.
Uncle Pete called me up I said “well look, if I pack you up some ribs, can you take them out to an airline pilot that’s going to Las Vegas?” Charlie Smith will meet you at the airport. He’ll pick up the ribs and he’ll take them to Bill Cosby. I said “I think we can do that.”
So we packed up some slabs of ribs. Threw them in the back. Took them out to the airport. Uncle Pete gave them to a pilot on his way to Las Vegas. Hand them off. Charlie Smith ends up in Bill Cosby’s dressing room eating ribs. It’s true.
We had a couple of customers call up and say, “Look, we’re having a party and we want 20 slabs of ribs.” I said “I don’t know how to really do it.”
Going overnight really created a problem for us. We had to go buy coolers and refrigerants and all this stuff. I said “I’ll take it out to Delta Dash.” FedEx was here. It was just starting.
No. No. Nobody even knew we were doing it. Somebody would call up. It was the same thing about putting the sauce on the table. Customer would call up and say he wanted some ribs. I said “All right. I’ll try to get them to you.”
We did a Delta Dash for a while. FedEx, I guess it was the late ’70’s or early ’80’s FedEx was coming along. We’re the hub. They can pick up. Even with Delta Dash, it was taking eight hours from the time that we pack it up to the time that it got there. (Years)’78, ’79’, ’80.
FedEx was started in ’74, ’75? It was still in it’s infancy. I don’t assume that they went everywhere back then. You couldn’t send a package to…
If we took a box out to the airport, at, like, noon, we went to the Delta Dash office. We didn’t go to the airport. We went to the freight part of it. By the time it got there, it was 7 or 8 hours later. They didn’t get it ’til like nine or ten that night. They had to go pick it up. The time in transit was 7,8,9, maybe even 10 hours.
FedEx could pickup here at 10 o’clock at night and have it there the next morning at 10:30 so you’re only talking about a few more hours. Then we started going “we can freeze these things.” We froze some. Heated them back up. These are all right. These are good. We had our seasonings and sauce all packaged up.
Outside Contractors for Sauces and Seasonings?
No this was our own. We had our pork chops. No, we didn’t have sauce. We shipped seasoning. Just seasoning. We didn’t have sauce then. We told them how to make the vinegar and water basting. They added some seasoning to it.
We can go through FedEx. They can pickup here at 10 o’clock at night. Twelve hours later, it’s delivered.
This was when the catfish business was getting to be big. Fresh catfish and frozen catfish down in Mississippi. There was a packaging company here that packaged the catfish for the catfish people. It (packaging) was one piece. There were no seams, compressed Styrofoam box and they claimed that it had the same cooling- it was compressed to an eighth or a sixteenth of an inch- capabilities of an inch and a half of Styrofoam. I didn’t believe it then; I still don’t believe it, but it sounded good when you told somebody you were going to ship it and it didn’t arrive there frozen. It was going to just be cool.
We bought a bunch of those boxes. Started taking- whoever answered the phone- they’d take your order and your credit card. Back then, Mr. Kemmons Wilson said look, (We were shipping orders of ribs.) it’s a good idea, but you only need to send the long part of the ribs, the long bones. He said don’t worry about the short bones. People don’t’ want those. That’s Mr. Kemmons. That’s what he wants. He wants the longest thinnest bone. Most anybody else wouldn’t have cared. So it ended up we started cutting these orders and we ended up with all these little pieces. They’d end up in the damn pork and beans or the pork shoulder. So we were losing money like crazy doing it before we started shipping slabs.
We’d throw them in a Zip-loc bag. Throw them in the freezer. Bought some little gel packs. Threw it all in the box. FedEx it. Whoever answered the phone would take your order. Put it on a credit card. I think it was like 45 bucks to ship it. It’d get there the next morning. When it left here, we had no more clue whether it got there than the man in the moon unless somebody called up. Some people probably called up who were probably drunk and don’t even remember ordering.
Then the USDA started getting involved in probably the middle to the late part of the ’80’s. We’re not real good on time lines around here. Everything’s pretty vague. They started getting pretty serious about it and they’d come by, send you a letter, “Now, y’all are going to have to cut this out.” They would kind of half heartedly come. There weren’t that many people doing it.
Well, some people decided that there might be a living in this. Omaha Steak Company’s been shipping raw frozen steaks forever, but nobody had really ever done cooked food, which took a little of the danger… To send a full cooked product compared to a raw product, temperatures aren’t nearly as critical. They’d (USDA) kind of come and every once in a while they’d get pretty serious and they’d actually scare you a little bit. But that customer would call up and they just had to have it. You’d say, “well, I’ll do this one more time.” The next thing you know, you’re back in business. We’re only going to go to the penitentiary. That’s all right. Maybe somebody will ship me some ribs.
People decided that actually a person could make a living out of it (shipping food). Certainly, a source of information or advertising for the restaurant. So they went to the expense. It’s not cheap to build a USDA kitchen. We went out of the business because it was so expensive and they wouldn’t let us do it here.
I think we spent $350,00 dollars building our new USDA facility and we own the property. So you’re talking pretty good change. Well, some people decided that they were going to go on and do it. When nobody had a USDA kitchen, nobody was really pushing it that hard. But, when somebody spent that $300,000-$400,000, then all of a sudden they go “If I’m going to fork over the money to it legally, then they’re either going to fork over the money or give it up. They’re going to quit doing it.” I don’t blame anybody for that. As long as everybody was doing and not having to have kitchens that was fine. But when somebody sprung for the cash and decided, then you either get in the game with them or you get out.
Corky’s was (the first to build a USDA kitchen). So we got out of the business. We quit doing it.
It was a shame. We were really pioneers in that business. Delta Airlines, they were our friend. They shipped our first illegal food. There was just no regulation. They did an article on us. This guy was a reporter doing research. According to him, these guys (The Rendezvous) are pioneers in this business because he didn’t know of anybody else that was doing it. There were some people, like Hickory Farms, selling cured products, sausage and stuff that didn’t require any refrigeration.
We kind of got beat up not being in it. But we’re back in it now and starting to take some of our territory back. Since ’96. I know that because it says it on the building. That’s one year I’m sure of. I see that every morning.
I know that our food can be great. We just do such volume. We know that we can’t get out the best order of ribs we can every time. We know that it’s going to be certainly cooked.
We cook five tons or ribs every week. We cook 70 boxes a day and a box is 30 pounds. That’s 2,100 pounds every day. Serve maybe 10 or 11 thousand people, a week. We know that it’s not going to be great every time. We certainly think that its’ great 90% of the time.
We can tell when people leave here whether or not their food was good or whether they enjoyed themselves. You can tell by their smile on their faces. They’re happy. If when you say thank you and come back and they say “Thank you, we will or they go uggghhhh.” We don’t get very many complaints, bad remarks. Everybody seems to leave here… I think that a lot of people are pretty much overwhelmed by the whole place.
You walk down this alley. Walking past dumpsters and everything else, you’re going somebody’s played a trick on me. They told me to come to this joint and I don’t believe them. Then all of a sudden they get about halfway down those steps and all of a sudden here it is and there’s people in here. Everybody’s happy and everybody’s eating with their hands. There’s shit all over the wall that you can look at. People are running around and I think we’ve about won them over just from that point. There’s just nothing else like that rib. When that rib is right, it’s a perfectly cooked piece of pork. With that seasoning and that vinegar and that water and that basting sauce on it hot. There’s just nothing else like it.
(Vinegar and water) That’s our basting sauce. We add some of our seasoning to it to give it color and some flavor. But it’s 50% white vinegar, 50% water, and according to how much you make, you add some seasoning to give it a little more flavor and a little color. Taste it. If it’s too strong, you add some water. If it’s not strong enough, you add some more vinegar and that’s pretty much it. That 50-50 is a good place to start.
Quantity versus Quality Sacrifices
I would personally would want every slab of ribs that we serve at the table to come right off the grill. Perfectly cooked and done. We can’t do that. We just can’t do that. We’d have to add ten more pits, add 6 or 8 more cooks and order of ribs would be $25. Then we wouldn’t need those extra pits or those extra cooks cause there wouldn’t be anybody here to eat them. That would be the one thing that I would really, really, like to see.
There’s a lot of pain in growing. Ms. Payne, when she was there, you knew that, when you got that sandwich, she made it herself. She was in the kitchen when it was made. We’re in the restaurant business when all this food is brought out, but it’s a big restaurant. I may be over there and they bring a tray of food. We try to look at as many trays of food as we possibly can.
I’ll say one thing and I mentioned this to somebody the other day. Every once in a while, I don’t know if it’s the wind down here, one of the waiters will walk by with one of those trays with about 10 or 12 orders of ribs and it’ll walk past your nose and “god that smells good.” I never have gotten tired of that taste or that smell. I can walk in here an go “I’m home.”
Food, Comfort and Home
It’s like going to my mother’s house. My mother was born and raised in a little village in Greece. When she cooks, I just know that that fresh taste of oregano, and oil, and lemon, and vinegar is just going to be in the house. the feta cheese and the baking, even the basil, I know that that’s going to be in the house and that’s a very comforting thing to me and I’ve worked very hard in my own personal struggles to try to learn to cook something, I’ve wanted to duplicate that taste and that smell in my house and I’ve done it.
It doesn’t mean that I don’t go to my mother’s and I don’t do it better than she does it, but I’m pretty damn close. That smell of garlic, I just love it.
At my house, I’ve got the biggest Viking oven they make. I’ve got burners I haven’t even used. But I’ve got a Vent-A-Hood. I couldn’t put it in until my kids were a little bit older. It’d suck ’em right out. But I can be cooking at my house and the neighbors’ll be out in the yard. They’ll all end up in my front yard, just smelling all that garlic and stuff.you walk in my house and it just smells like a Greek or Italian restaurant. The kids love it. The children love the smell. My kids want their steaks medium rare. They want their eggs over easy and don’t dare break the yolks on their eggs. When you flip them over you better not spread on of those yolks out and you better not forget to salt and pepper your food. That’s just all there is to it at our house, medium rare steaks and eggs over easy.
Now what else is there in life?
Have some cream and butter.
What else can you cook?
Well, I don’t know anything else.
You’re doing all right.
Date of interview:
November 12, 2002
Amy C. Evans