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Essay by Joe York
On the door they’re dancing, up on their hind legs, his hooves on her shoulders, hers on his. It is a scene straight out of a pig prom. But something’s not right.
There are no chef’s hats on their heads, no tuxedos, no lapels on which to pin a slaw corsage.
Their smiles are not the smiles of the average Memphis pig. They are not giggling as they barbecue their brethren, not overcome by the hysterical, rapturous ecstasy of an animal who knows his fate and has resigned his self to it, not wearing the mask of the martyr marching proudly to the pit. They are happy, genuinely happy, too happy, in fact, for a pair of pigs in the barbecue capital of the world. But they are not pigs, not really. The Dancing Pigs represent Brady and Lil, the couple from whom Frank Vernon and his wife Hazel learned the recipes and traditions that now come out of The Bar-B-Q Shop’s kitchen.
The Vernon’s long time costumers of Brady and Lil’s, offered to take on the business from the aging couple. For more than a year Brady and Lil taught the Vernon’s everything they knew about Bar-B-Q.
When the Vernon’s moved the store over to Madison and changed the name to The Bar-B-Q Shop they kept the logo as a link to Brady and Lil. And so they dance, on the front door, and on the backs of the servers’ shirts, and on bottles of sauce and seasoning, safe as sacred cows from the fate of the Memphis pig.
SUBJECT: Frank Vernon
INTERVIEWER: Brian Fisher
Brian Fisher: Explain the name change from Brady and Lil’s to the Barbecue Shop.
Frank Vernon: Well, you know some years ago, matter of fact, I used to buy my barbecue at Brady and Lil’s. After so many years rolled by I was in another business I had run one of the old Holland Houses which was another restaurant but they didn’t sell any barbecue.
So I went in one and talked to Mr. Brady and he had asked me about, you know, I was thinking of getting out of this and I might want to try to get into something else. So he told me he was retiring. And after that, he asked me that he was thinking about getting on out and so what I did I asked him. “Would this be open to me?” And, he said “yes.” And one thing led to another and that’s pretty much how it went.
We bought his business. It closed down that summer for vacation, opened back up, and, then, we took over. And we stayed there like 3 or 4 years then we moved to another location on Knight- Arnold and then we were running both of them. We stayed there at the Knight Arnold Store for about 3 years. We closed the one on Parkway up and moved here and closed the one on Knight Arnold and we changed the name.
Right. I was already in the business at one time. But it was a Holland House, sort of like the CK. The Doll House, they used to call that years ago. They sold breakfast any time of the day, sandwiches and all that other stuff. And so, just coming into a different type of restaurant, coming into barbecue instead of more of the fast food.
What was the lure of barbecue?
The barbecue, it really wasn’t a slower pace, but I guess, in a sense, compared to the fast food type. But this business it can move out it can jump just as well as fast food.
I really got into barbecue because I used to barbecue at home a whole lot. Just like everybody else. Here I am thinking, you know all backyard barbecuers are supposed to be one of the best so I though I could barbecue anyway. Just period. Until I got into the business and I found out that it was just all different.
The biggest difference, the whole concept is you’re cooking much more meat; you’re cooking it slow, and, when you’re dealing with the public, you want to make sure that it’s consistent. And that’s the key to doing ribs. That’s the key to doing- we serveBoston butt shoulder. Going in we use hickory; we use charcoal the whole thing is trying to bring in cooked slowly all the ribs and all the pork is tender.
It was a big change but I had to hang on in there and do it.
Trouble at first?
Oh, I did. I think everybody did. If you dealing with somebody and I was dealing with Mr. Brady that owned Brady and Lil’s. He was a really good cook and he knew exactly how to go about it doing it.
He stayed with me for about a month. Working with me. But even after he left, there were just some times when I thought “Man why would you–”
Barbecue is a work of art. You have to be pretty much a person who can– Then it gets down to a slow pace because when your cooking it, you want it to be right. You can mess up. I’ve messed up many ribs. Trying to cook it where it would be tender where it’d be–
I was talking to Bob Freeman out at Red hot and Blue. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Red Hot and Blue. He says, “what I like about your ribs is that they’re tender inside and you still got that crust on the top.”
And those are the things you still you can get the crust on the top if you overcook them and then they’d be kind of dry ribs too.
That was it for me. We did make a lot of mistakes and I’m learning right now about barbecue. It’s something that you never… You get it down pat where you know how to cook it, but you’re always trying to make it better.
Transition with Mr. Brady. What did Mr. Brady teach you?
One of the things was about marinating, marinating the meat. Buying a good grade of meat. If had probably went I, everybody’s doing shoulders. Mr. Brady, he believed in Boston Butts, shoulder butt. I have the bone-in which is the center cut of the shoulder. We use a sparerib, St. Louis cut. Even making the fire. How to put the charcoal in. How you lay it out. How you spread it out. When you put your ribs on.
It was just a whole new way of doing. When I used to do it home in the backyard, I’d get my charcoal going; my pit going, and I just when out an put my meat on. Cooked the ribs slow. All backyard cookers you burn up a whole lot of stuff you mess up a whole lot, but you’re trying to get better each week. You can’t really afford to mess up like that in this kind of business.
It was from picking out the best meat. Marinating it. Even the way that you lay it on the pit. We might start from left to right on the pit but believe or not, sometimes, once you get to know your pit, one side cooks better than the other. The thing was, going from left to right simplifies; we try to put the big end closer. For the ribs, you put the big end towards the middle of the fire so it can get done. If this was the big end, you kind of put it in this way all the way across. From the other side the meat. Those are all the kind of secrets that he taught me.
And something with the Boston Butts. You put the bone in towards the middle, where all the heat is at. Marinate it. One of the things we do is mopping the meat. You have a little bucket in the pit with all your marinade and all your seasonings and spices and stuff in. You leave the mop in. You keep it in there where all the smoke would enhance.
Marinating while cooking?
Oh, yes right at that little edge right there. We just take it and mop right there. What it’s doing, it’s almost like recycling. Those are some of the things that I was taught.
Oh yeah. I use this pit right here and also I bought a Southern Pride. Which uses hickory but it’s electric and gas. There’s just a certain way that you have to cook on it to get a really a good flavor from it.
The electric part is the rotisserie. And all the gas does is light or torch where your wood goes and burns your wood. And you’ve got the fan that blows it over into center of the pit. That smokes it.
I burn hickory on that. Nothing but hickory. Sometimes I mix a little oak; some pecan, apple, or something like that. Mostly apple. It works fine for me. It really helped me out a whole lot. Because our business has just grown so until we were really couldn’t cook everything on this one pit (live fire pit).
You had to go from a live fire pit to a electric/gas for volume’s sake?
Yeah, just for volume’s sake. Just to have it you know. You could come in here and we’d run out. We put another room in the back. I had this pit about 3 or 4 years before I even put it in and then I decided to go ahead on and it in. And I tell you what, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened. This is my main thing here because I love cooking on this (live fire pit). But for the volume, I don’t have to worry about it.
So I cook all my ribs here (smaller live fire pit) and cook all my Boston butts back there (in the commercial Southern Pride).
When your cooking a whole lot and you’re busy and tied up, your butts is easy to catch a fire. Your drippings come down; you got a flame. You got a big fire in this thing and that could mess you up for the whole day.
On that one back there we usually put the meat on- theBoston butts on- about 7:30. Forget about it. Go home, and come back the next morning at 7;30 and they’re ready.
I remember some times when I used to do the Memphis in May and we had a concession down there. I had to run back here and get stuff ready for here. It’d just wear you out. You couldn’t do it. I thought I would probably never go to one of those Southern Prides. Everybody used to talk and this guy used to come by come by and “man, you can’t beat it. Less time. Save on charcoal.” My business had picked up so that it was hard for us to keep up.
We’ll go on and put that one in. I had bought it. It was in storage. I said “I might as well take it out of storage and use it.” It’s paid for and I don’t owe nobody. I’ve had in now a little over a year.
Happy with it?
I love it. I haven’t had any problems. It really saves me. Somebody comes in and says “I want this amount of meat.” It’s no problem, I can get it.
What year did you become the owner?
Back in ’82. From ’82 up until now. When we was on Poplar, we didn’t seat any more than about 30 people. We’ve just grown from that point. The last place we opened, I was able to seat up to 80 or 90 people and this place here seats about 80. Volume wise we’ve grown 5 or 6 times. We really do some pickup. It’s just been a blessing for us.
To what do you attribute the growth?
Location is number 1. I don’t care what you’ve got. Location is a big priority. Number two is just being consistent and having a good product. Regardless of what somebody else has because this place could be up today and somebody else comes in and have a better product
We’ve been on top for so long. We’ve won this and won that. There’ some times, like when Interstate came in, they came; they do pretty much the same. They were the new people on the block. But, about a year ago, we came back and we came the number one barbecue sandwich of 2000 for Memphis.
Then also came back and we came in second or third place in ribs. So regardless of what you hear, you remain the same. You don’t change one thing. You what you do. I got a good sauce. I got a good hot sauce and we don’t change anything. We just keep it the same.
Sauce versus Meat
I look at this way. Everybody can cook, whether you burn it up or what. Everybody can cook some type of meat. So I think the sauce is your number one thing. Even if you can cook, if you’ve got a good product to go over it, I think that’s the key.
Course you know cooking is a bit thing to now. But that fine touch. You could lay a pot of meat out on the table and people say it smells good it tastes good. It’s got that smoked flavor. But then, you take your sauce and put it on it and they say “oh yeah, this is it.” I think that makes a big difference.
Make your own sauce?
Our own sauce from scratch, the sauce has been around over sixty years. Hot sauce, we make it from scratch and we make our dry seasonings from scratch.
Recipes from Mr. Brady?
These hot and mild. We modified the mild and the hot just a little bit. He didn’t have a dry seasoning. Everything else is still pretty much remains the same.
Seasonings made in Shop?
Collect them, mix them, do them up. We’ve got this product in Kroger’s.
We still make our own sauce here that we use in the restaurant. But any other sauce we do like for the grocery store, the seasoning we do this through a manufacturer because its the same as I would do it. But the mild and hot in the bottles, that goes in the grocery stores, its a fraction off of what I do. Cause I’m not going to give away all this here (sweeping gesture around the restaurant). It’s a little bit different. It still has the same qualities, but it’s not the same.
Eventually, we might one day start trying to make our own (bottled sauce) so then we could put our own special stuff in it.
(Sauce contractor in Wisconsin. Name unintelligible)
I’m not going to give up everything. You have to sign a nondisclosure over. Anything could go wrong. This is our hand made and you can’t beat this. Even if I gave this to them (sauce contractor)they couldn’t make like I could.
How’d you get into the cooking business?
I was a driver with UPS. I worked for UPS about 14 years. I used to deliver to restaurant supply place which was are (unknown) and Tate at that time. I used to go in there every day and for some reason, I always wanted to get into the restaurant business. And these people owned the restaurant supply shop plus they owned a little restaurant and plus, they knew a whole lot of people.
So on my route was one of the old Holland Houses. I ended up talking to Mr. (unknown) and he told me about who were the owners of it. And he said, look Frank, I’ll help you out all I can. I’ll even show you how come up and plan a menu. My wife and I, we went over and he talked to us and told us how to it. And one thing led to another and, then, he knew the guy who owned it. We got in. We took some time off. My wife, she teaches school. We went in. We didn’t know anything about doing an over light egg. We didn’t know anything about doing this or that. He said “the best thing to do is hire maybe one or two people that have experience in short order cooking.”
Luckily, we put a thing down at the unemployment office and we put an ad in the paper. We got two people who used to be former Holland House workers. They came in and taught us everything. One thing about it, this is your business and you would know more than they would within a week or two. And that was so true.
We got that thing down so pat. We just knew how to do this. Knew how to do grits and the whole nine yards. We just got in it and we loved it. Then when I went over there and talked to Mr. Brady. He was getting ready to retire and told him that I was interested in his place. So, he said, “when I get a little further down, I’m going to let you know.” I went in there one day and he said “I’m ready.”
I knew that was going to be a big challenge, coming behind somebody like that. The only things that he sold were ribs, rib tip, and Boston butt, and the barbecue spaghetti. No beans. None of that. Just Strictly a barbecue house and there was the slaw. and that was about it.
I went from there. Like I said I don’t’ cook enough here to buy nobody a car.
We buy dry slaw and then we make it up ourselves.
UPS to the restaurant business
Well, I don’t know. The whole thing was, I was making good money at UPS, but, the whole thing is going to work and doing something for myself. And that was the whole thing. I told my wife I want to own my own business. I want to do this. I want to do that I knew that it was going to be a whole lot of work. I’d be tied up. It wouldn’t really matter. I really want to get in it. I want to be my own business man.
Did you love food/did you cook a lot at home?
No I didn’t. The only thing really liked doing is cooking out in the backyard, barbecue. I did a few things. I cooked steaks and all that. But just trying to be a successful business man. That’s what I wanted. That’s what I got myself into.
I’ve been really blessed. We’ve got all sorts of name recognition. It’s just kind of good to come in and somebody from another state as far as their concerned another country. We’ve had people come in from Germany, Japan, Russia. It’s just so good for people to come in and say I’ve heard so much talk about this place.
We have been this place, that place. I did a catering yesterday, first time. One of the owners comes here to eat. When we got there, everybody said a prayer before they ate and he said “this is one of the best barbecue places in Memphis. This is the best.” I thought that was speaking a whole lot. The avenue that we have gone down through. It speaks for itself.
How do people gain an attachment to your food?
We have, like they used to say, old hometown folks. I think that when you get people coming in your restaurant. You make them feel at home. You serve them a good quality of food. We have people come here I just want to let you know that was great. They might ask one of the waiters or waitresses, “Could I see the owner or could I see the y’all’s pit where you cook this at?” I just think that when you take something out and people taste it and get that sensation of that smoke and those tangy bites that are crunchy that will float into your mouth. I think its just exciting when people come tell you. You just feel so great about the product. That’s why I feel so strongly about it. It’s not that I’m bragging cause I don’t eat it all the time. I feel it because, I get those expressions from other people. I just like people’s feedback.
My son, he works here also. Hopefully he’ll take this over. He just graduated from University of Memphis. Just got his Masters degree. Now he’s in full time. But, he has such a close contact with people because he’s here now more than I am. So many people know him. Like this catering I did yesterday, these are some people that he knows. He came to me said look, I want you to this for me, these people.
Is it special to get you do catering?
Well yeah, I don’t do like I used to. I used to do it all the time. But know I just only do it for people that I know. Close contacts. Other than just marketing catering now, I don’t even do it.
I’ve paid my dues. I’ve been out here a long time. I get so, I hate to lose my business because I can’t be in both places at the same time. I know sometimes that you have to trust other people with your product. I used to try to come in here and cook my meat and get it all ready. Then, I might have a big catering job. Then, I’d go on the catering job. Then, I’d wonder what’s going on back here, during luck time.
Sometimes you do a catering that’s right at lunch. I remember one time we did something for Baptist Hospital. We did it for Baptist East around 800. We did 800 out East and couple of thousand at Central. I had to chop up all this meat. Then early in the morning we the crew come in at four o’clock in the morning chop meat. But we didn’t do no pre chopping. We did chopping on the spot so that the meat would be perfect. It’s just hands on trying to be here, trying to do this. Like I told my son, I don’t mind doing these caterings but I like to be here and see what’s going on here to. I really like being on top of my product.
I had guy call me from St. Louis. He’s a pharmaceutical rep. and we do a whole lot of pharmaceutical reps. He called me and said. Frank, look, I’ve got this doctor. He’s coming to Memphis. He said he wants some barbecue. I told him, not the Barbecue Shop. Let him come in and eat what he wants. I’ll take care of it of the ticket. This is a guy that I’ve known for years and years.
Avoiding becoming like other fast food.
I don’t want to be a part of that. I’ve heard of so many people Corky’s. People come and say I went here and it just didn’t taste the same. So I don’t want to be a part of that. You can only make so much. I’ve had a good life. Now, I just want to have a nice family restaurant and keep the company that I enjoy.
I don’t care if people come and say why don’t you put one in Germantown? Why don’t’ you put this one here? Why don’t you put one there. Eric, if he wants to do that later, I’ll let him do it. But as of right now, we’re just going to stay put and have people come from miles around.
It has done quite a bit for me personally. I’ve gotten I chance to a whole lot things that I don’t think I probably would have been able to do. My wife and I, we close up every year in July for a couple of weeks. We go on real good vacations. Sometimes twice a year.
It’s just like anything else, it just takes a little time but once you get going. I think we still have got a little bit more to reach for. With him coming aboard, my son, I think we’ve got a whole lot more to accomplish. I think that I can do a little bit more than I’m doing now. I’m just not reaching out. A whole lot of our business is word of mouth.
There are more things that I think I can add on the menu. You listen to so many people about what you might need to add. Not something real big. Like right now, we took chicken off. We used to have 1/2 a chicken when we first moved here about 15 years ago. It didn’t do well, here. But now people are asking for it back. So I cooked some back here- gave trial. I gave it out and these people loved it. Same thing about turkey. We used to do Turkey on Knight-Arnold and sold tons of it, sandwiches. Now people are beginning to want that back a little bit. We might try it again.
When you come into a new neighborhood, it’s always a little bit different. This is midtown; it’s in a neighborhood. Like I said, it’s a whole lots things. We had smoked catfish at one time. I think the restaurant within itself can enhance a little bit more different products that make it better.
Reaching out to customers
The customers are the ones coming and spending money. You know Earl LePerl(?). He did a thing for us, a piece, that he ran on channel 10. My son got on; he did his talking and he remembered when we used to bring him over and he was small; we used to miss a whole lot of things that were going on. How he said he knew his parents neglected a whole lot- not neglected- but, we passed up a whole lot of stuff just to be here (the restaurant).
We had people come in the next day saying, I am so glad that is a testimony within itself- to hear your son talk about you and your wife. Those are the kinds of things that get people really excited. We had folks just call and say look I’m coming, but what I’m calling you about is just the way that whole way everything was just laid out.
We weren’t doing it for that. It’s just the way it happens.
(The calls and positive comments) It was just great, you know.
This location, I think it was ’87 I believe. Then we were at Knight Arnold, we stayed there for about 3 years. Then we were at Parkway; I think we were there for a total of about 6 years.
Customers follow you from location to location
The thing about it is, when we were Brady and Lil’s; When I bought Brady and Lil’s, he said as long as I stay right there, then I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to pay a royalty for using his name. We learned that. We opened the place.
We were young. We were excited. We were kind of like with me, a little something we have more room and a better location, but the location was going to work out for us. We stayed there matter of fact the man that owns the building told us that look, I’ll look out for your here. A full year, you won’t have to pay us anything. Y’all good some good tenants and I just hate to lose you.
We ran out there and it didn’t work. I know the guy who owns this building, here. We got a break here and came here. After the name change from- We kept the name when we went to knight Arnold. But when we moved here, I had my attorney call. Mr. Brady had died. His wife was still living. So we asked her could we just pay her a lump sum for a year just to keep the name?
We were making more money and quite naturally you make more money, you’re paying a certain percentage of that to somebody who’s really not doing you any good. You just really have the name but they’re not- it’s not like a chain.
She said no. I’m not going to that. So I told my attorney to tell her attorney and we changed the name.
When we first got in here. People that that we were a new kid on the block. We had a new name. People couldn’t hardly wait until we opened to try us out. We knew we had a good product; people would love it and all that other great stuff.
But, everybody comes to try you out in a new spot and they’re all potential customers that might end up coming back. We got a whole lot of pay back but once it dropped off, we had to start building. It took a while. I remember the time, we put my wife at school, she said we gonna, you know these old print outs they do with computers with the little holes in them?
We put up here- right across here- Formerly Brady and Lil’s.
People would come in and see that and tell somebody this is where they moved. Then we started doing matches. We started doing some advertising. People actually found out who we were and where we were or where we went. Then things started coming together. It took a while. Matter of fact at one time- to be honest with you- I couldn’t figure it out. I said, man I know we’ve got a good product. What’s going on? Why are we taking so long?
I was thinking about going out, just closing up, closing up shop. Then just everything started clicking and when it started clicking, it just kept clicking.
Then we got some good recommendations. One time, we’re good friends with Brian Sundquist and George Bush came in at the time he was running and he’s supposedly coming here. He got tied up at the Peabody or somewhere else and couldn’t make it. But just the idea. We had camera people up there. They had blocked off from Auburndale all the way down to I forget all the way back up to McLean. Nobody could park on the side. They had all the Secret Service come in that Sunday to check the place out.
It just grew from all that. Now we’re officially the Barbecue shop.