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Grit, Grind

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Grit, Grind
Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous / Text by Andria Lisle / Photos by Justin Fox Burks

MEET THE FOLKS IN MEMPHIS SERVING IT UP, ONE DELICIOUS PLATE AT A TIME

Memphis is a survivor. First came a trifecta of yellow fever epidemics in the 1870s that caused the city to lose 75 percent of its residents to death or flight and have its charter revoked for five long years. Fast-forward a scant century later to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which placed a permanent blemish on this capital of the Mid-South. With St. Louis to the north, New Orleans to the south, and Nashville and Atlanta to the east, we’ve always felt like underdogs who, no matter how hard we fight, can’t keep up. Yet despite these battle scars—and strangleholds placed on the city by small-minded dictators like onetime mayor E.H. “Boss” Crump and formidable film censor Lloyd Tilgham Binford—Memphis has always displayed plenty of moxie.

Today, that determined spirit is distilled into a singular phrase that was coined, unlikely enough, by Tony Allen, basketball player for the Memphis Grizzlies. Allen, a native Chicagoan, was interviewed on the court in Oklahoma City after scoring a record twenty-seven points that took the game into overtime and resulted in a hard-won victory for the underdog Grizzlies. “It’s just all heart,” Allen said. “Grit, grind.”

In retrospect, that game and Allen’s remark changed everything: FedEx Forum gained a nickname, the Grindhouse, and Allen was christened The Grindfather. Thousands of Grizzlies fans began wearing t-shirts and waving “growl towels” emblazoned with the slogan “Grit. Grind.” The Grizzlies made it to the playoffs in 2011 and have played harder with better results every year since.

But grit and grind is about more than basketball. It’s about the bike trails forged from kudzu-choked railroad lines that, thanks to the work of visionaries like current mayor A C Wharton, will eventually run from Arkansas across the Mississippi River and to the eastern reaches of Shelby County. It’s about the fortitude of businesspeople who have worked hard to reclaim and relaunch long overlooked urban communities like Soulsville, South Main, Cooper-Young, and Overton Square. It’s about our collective historical gumption: after all, we gave birth to the first drive-in restaurant, Fortune’s Jungle Garden; the first self-serve grocery store, Piggly Wiggly; and the first rock-and-roll record, Rocket 88.

Photos by Justin Fox Burks Photos by Justin Fox Burks
Payne's BBQ / SPECIALTY Chopped shoulder sandwich / Photo by Justin Fox Burks

Even more than that, grit and grind serves as a mantra for the restaurateurs, wait staff, and management behind a handful of Memphis’ culinary institutions that have weathered the tough times and come out smiling on the other side. Grits don’t have to be an item on the menu for these hard-working Memphians to know what it takes to excel at the gastronomic game when the pressure’s on.  As Arcade Restaurant owner Harry Zepatos notes, “No matter what’s happening in the world around us, we have to give a damn about what we’re doing.”

Good times or bad times, their food is what keeps the rest of us going. “All heart. Grit, grind.” It’s food for the body and nourishment for our souls.

Payne’s Bar-B-Que

1762 Lamar Avenue / 901.272.1523
Founded by the late Horton Payne in 1972 and been in its current location since 1976

“This was the street when we opened back in the 1970s—there were theaters, bakeries, everything in this neighborhood back then. That was forever ago. We’ve done a lot of praying since then, but I still get up singing and sing my way here most of the time.

“‘Grit and grind’ means to work hard. At Payne’s, that’s ‘grit and grind and slaw!’

We cook about eight pork shoulders a day for our customers. They cook all day, and we let them smoke all night. A shoulder might weigh ten or twelve pounds when we start, but by the time we get through, it’s about eight pounds of meat. It’s not easy work, but we work hard, we always have a good attitude, and like I said, we do a lot of praying.” – Flora Payne, owner and chef

Wiles-Smith Drugs

1635 Union Avenue / 901.278.6416
Opened in 1944

Photos by Justin Fox Burks
Wiles-Smith Drugs / SPECIALTY Extra-thick “Joe’s Special” shake / Photo by Justin Fox Burks

“I came to Memphis from Gallatin, Tennessee, in 1958 to get my doctor of pharmacy degree at the University of Tennessee. I started working here in ’58 or early ’59, graduated, and I’ve been here since. I bought the business from Dr. Wiles in 1967. When I first came here, I was taught that we weren’t supposed to make money off the soda fountain: it was a drawing card. There weren’t many fast food places. We had two cooks who served customers from seven o’clock in the morning on. Joe was with me for nineteen years. He was my right hand. He’d work on the soda fountain during the day and deliver in the afternoons. If people tipped him good, he’d make their milkshakes a little thicker. We put the ‘Joe’s Special’ on the menu after he passed away, close to eighteen years ago.

“When new drug store trends came along, I didn’t go along with getting rid of the soda fountain. We don’t see as much of the grit and grind as we used to, but I do enjoy the work and customers we do have. This is still a one- or two-man operation. This area of Memphis is like a small town. People who move out of the neighborhood still come back. We have two and three generations of people doing business with us.” – Dr. Charles N. Smith, pharmacist

Arcade Restaurant

540 S. Main Street / 901.526.5757 / arcaderestaurant.com
Opened in 1919

Photos by Justin Fox Burks
Arcade Restaurant / SPECIALTY Main Street Trolley pizza / Photo by Justin Fox Burks

“I grew up down here when I was a kid. When I got to be sixteen and could drive, I asked my dad if I could leave. I wanted to work outside, pound construction. I ended up getting an engineering degree and working at an architectural firm. In the 1990s, when my dad wanted to retire, he sold it twice over a four-year period, but things didn’t work out, so I came back in late 2001. My wife kept saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ South Main had 5,000 people at that point. Now it’s 30,000 to 45,000. I thank her every day. It’s fun to be part of something I grew up in. It’s a heart thing, a mental thing.

“The grit and grind here has got to be working to make it happen—we don’t just show up and count money. We’ll sell fifty to a hundred pizzas tonight, a hundred dozen eggs on Saturday, and a hundred dozen eggs on Sunday. My entire life, back when my grandfather and my dad had the Arcade, we were open twenty-four seven. That’s three shifts a day—and three times the number of problems to deal with. I think I take it for granted that we can do well here, but it’s a matter of caring about what we do. I don’t leave town too often.” – Harry Zepatos Jr., owner

Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous

52 S. Second St. / 901.523.2746 / hogsfly.com
Opened in 1948

Photos by Justin Fox Burks
Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous / SPECIALTY Dry rub pork ribs / Photo by Justin Fox Burks

“I’m a second-generation Rendezvous waiter. When I was in tenth grade, I decided to do something with my life, so I went to sign up for the Air Force. They told me I was an only child, and so I couldn’t do it. I came down to the Rendezvous because my dad works here, thinking, ‘I might as well.’ I wanted to do something with my life, and I’ve been here for thirty-three years. When I first started, we had older crowds come down, and now I’ve seen kids grow up and go to college. I can’t believe it! I’ve been waiting on Justin Timberlake since he was in *NSYNC, and now he’s all grown up and married. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’m almost fifty now, and I saw them when they were babies in strollers.’

“Working at the Rendezvous is really not that hard. The grit and grind is this: You’ve got to know what you’re doing. You’ve got to be ‘here’ mentally, know where everything goes. Be friendly. Come to work on time, smile, be polite. I’ve been doing it so long that there’s really no grind to it. I just really love being here. It’s like being at home—I’ve got my family at home and my family here.” – Robert Stewart Jr., waiter

Bar-B-Q Shop

1782 Madison Ave. / 901.272.1277 / dancingpigs.com
Founded under the name Brady & Lil’s in the 1950s and open as the Bar-B-Q Shop since 1988

Photos by Justin Fox Burks
Bar-B-Q Shop / Photo by Justin Fox Burks

“We make our sauce from scratch—our recipe is over sixty years old. We’re consistent, and we really know our customers. That combination makes us special. But I never planned to be here. My senior year in college, my dad came to me and I told him I’d give him one year of my life after graduation. Business just picked up after that, and a lot of things came into play: The more I worked with my father, the more I began to see him in a different light. Church and family fell into place. It just felt right.

“The grit and grind comes when we’re seating 120 people because we make every item to plate. There’s no assembly line or pre-made food here. We cook our meat through the night and take it off the pit in the morning. Our job is to get it out and make everybody happy at the same time. There are days when we have lines out the door, and we just have to do our best to get everybody fed.” – Eric Vernon, owner

Coletta’s Restaurant

1063 S. Parkway East / 901.948.7652 / colettas.net
Opened in 1923

Photos by Justin Fox Burks
Bar-B-Q Shop / SPECIALTY Barbecue pizza / Photo by Justin Fox Burks

“My grandfather established Coletta’s and my father took over from him, making ice cream in the basement and taking a wagon around the neighborhood with spaghetti, ravioli, sandwiches, and ice cream. I majored in mathematics, but I decided the restaurant business was more interesting. Our success is a combination of good food and good staff. We have people who have worked here for thirty, forty years. Our family is from Viticuso, outside of Rome, and that culture has influenced our cooking. We make our own meat sauce and make our salad dressings, marinara, ravioli, manicotti, and meatballs from scratch. We make our own barbecue meat for the pizzas, and make our own barbecue sauce.

“Typically, I work six days a week—sometimes single shifts, sometimes doubles. I oversee everything, maybe a busted water pipe or the kitchen’s run out of syrup. It’s always something, especially in an old building like this. I talk to the customers, help the cashiers, make sure everything’s running right, make sure that the business and the customers are taken care of every day of the week. People might see me sitting at the bar ordering a drink, but they don’t see me here early in the morning or up at two a.m. doing the books. It’s become part of me: the restaurant comes first. I take pride in the fact that we’re the oldest continually operating restaurant in Memphis. We’ve never changed hands, and we’ve never closed down.” – Jerry Coletta, owner

Earnestine & Hazel’s

84 E. G.E. Patterson Ave. / 901.523.9754
Founded circa 1919 and run by Russell George since 1992

Photos by Justin Fox Burks
Bar-B-Q Shop / SPECIALTY Soul Burger / Photo by Justin Fox Burks

“Being at Earnestine’s is like being in your living room. I enjoy giving people a personal tour of the place, telling the history and making them laugh. I don’t charge ’em—in fact, I even buy ’em a beer. All these people started sending us postcards from all over the world that say, ‘Russell, this was the highlight of my trip.’

“When I started out in the bar business, jukeboxes weren’t too cool. Everybody was getting big expensive sound systems, but I couldn’t afford that. I was a music fanatic from a young age, and so I put my old records, all this soul and rhythm-and-blues music that I’d collected, on the jukebox. I’m sixty-two now, and I’ve had heart trouble and cancer trouble, but my love for music keeps me going.

“The grit and grind is paying the bills: taxes, insurance, payroll. In the old days, a guy could open up a business for a thousand dollars. If he was a hard worker and he stuck to it and he was consistent, he could make it. Nowadays, all the costs and rules and regulations can stop a man from having the dream of owning his own business.”

“The Soul Burger is a perfect example of that—it’s a survivor burger, created to keep us from going broke.”

“Its origin is simple: When I first came down here, this whole part of town was boarded up, and I was doing all of the cooking. Every week, I was throwing tomatoes and lettuce away because they went bad before we had the chance to use them. That kind of waste can put you out of business! I thought, ‘I’m getting onions and pickles, and that’s it.’ Pickles because they last forever and onions because they’ll last for almost forever. I added a sauce that I made up. It’s Worcestershire and a few little drops of secret stuff I stick in there. I hate to say this, but it’s kind of like a super deluxe Krystal burger with the grilled onions and everything.”  – Russell George, owner