Memphis breathes space, music and relaxation. Throw in great food, friendly folks and heaps of history and you’ve got a place worth lingering for. And that’s what I did, for about ten days. It felt good not having to pack up again after two or three nights. I guess I just needed to stay put somewhere for a while.
It was also in Memphis that I first prioritized writing over road tripping. A response on Reddit had pointed me in the direction of ‘Things to do in Memphis’-blogger Stacey Greenberg. I met Stacey the very first day for drinks at The Cove in Midtown. She proved to be an invaluable source of information, suggesting numerous locals I could approach for interviews. First among them was Eric Vernon, co-owner of one of the most popular barbecue restaurants in town: The Bar-B-Q Shop on Madison Avenue.
I quickly found out that simply calling the restaurant and leaving messages wasn’t the way to convey my request to Eric. I had to go there and eat. The first night, he wasn’t there. The second night, he was almost on his way out. Luckily, he recognized me – I’m assuming from my website – came to my table and gave me his personal cell phone number. We met the following Sunday at Loflin Yard on Carolina Street.
The boyishly handsome restaurateur – he’s older than he looks, you would never guess his age – is all smiles when he walks into Loflin’s front bar, originally the safe house office. He’s obviously well-known – and liked – among bar staff and clientele, shaking hands and reciprocating hugs as the evening progresses. Eric orders us a couple of Old Fashioned cocktails. I can’t remember the last time I had drinks during an interview (never), but hey, I’m on vacation, right?
Eric tells me The Bar-B-Q Shop – which has received numerous accolades from the influential Food Network – is not just a restaurant. “For a lot of the families that visit us, the Shop is a second home. Barbecue is all about gathering and forming a fellowship. We want our customers to feel invited and welcome.”
Frank Vernon, Eric’s dad, opened the restaurant in 1983 as Brady & Lil’s BBQ which had already been around for forty to fifty years. “The previous owners, a husband and wife team, made everything in the diner from scratch,” explains Eric. “The two pigs in our Dancing Pigs barbecue sauce logo, Brady & Lil, represent that craftsmanship. In the late ‘60s, dad and Brady had become friends and when Brady retired, dad took over. We changed the name to The Bar-B-Q Shop in 1987 and moved to our current location at 1782 Madison Ave in November of that year. The early years were a struggle. We had no money. It took almost twenty years to make it work. My parents came from nothing without a dime to their name. The Bar-B-Q Shop is the fulfillment of their American Dream.”
Frank recently retired from the restaurant, but still checks in every two weeks. Eric’s mom, Hazel, organizes the payroll and handles the Dancing Pigs barbecue sauce line that is now selling in four states. Growing up, Eric worked as much as he could in the restaurant. He somehow managed to combine that with earning undergraduate and graduate degrees. Church, however, was put on the back burner. “The family business was so all-consuming for so long, that we seldom attended service. When the restaurant became stable, my dad felt we had to go back. One of the most special experiences of my life was when dad and I got baptized together on December 26, 1999 at Temple of Deliverance. Now I go for communion every first Sunday of the month. Church gives me strength and inspiration. My faith keeps me grounded.”
Grit ‘n Grind
For Eric, getting to talk about Memphis is the highest accolade there is. “Memphis is an amazing place. The city comes from a lot of strive and that’s expressed in the music and food you find here. The same goes for sports. The Grizzlies are known for its “Grit ‘n Grind”-style of basketball: disruptive defense and inside-out offense. That grit distinguishes us from a city like Nashville. Also, unlike Nashville, we are growing the right way; we don’t get less southern. In downtown Memphis, you’ll only find four franchise restaurants. Memphians love their independence.”
Continuing on about Memphis, Eric explains he knows a lot of expats who moved to the city and ended up staying. “They thought they could walk away, but Memphis creeps into your soul. It’s an intangible quality, but to my mind it’s the closeness of the people that live here. We don’t have New York City’s hustle and bustle to distract us. In Memphis we meet each other and talk. We have the best conversations. That’s the backbone of real life.”
In 2016, The Bar-B-Q Shop was voted the nation’s #1 BBQ restaurant by the Food Network. All the more reason for online magazine “Let’s Do Memphis” to visit with co-owner Eric Vernon to trace the origins of the restaurant’s success.