CA: BBQ spots across U.S. lay claim to ‘Memphis’ name
Bluff City BBQ opened last month — in a New York suburb.
And there’s Memphis Style BBQ Company. Location: Seminole, Florida.
And there’s Porky J’s Memphis Style BBQ in San Antonio.
And there’s a restaurant chain called Memphis Barbecue Co. operating in Fayetteville, North Carolina,, and Dunwoody, Georgia, as well as just below Memphis in Horn Lake.
From the fringes of Manhattan to the the semi-arid hills of central Texas to California’s Bay Area, restaurants and other food-related businesses lean on the Memphis brand to establish their credibility.
The same city that gave the world Elvis, self-serve supermarkets, dependable roadside motels and FedEx also created a barbecue style so popular that restaurants across the nation use the Memphis brand to boost sales.
Sometimes “Memphis” is embedded in the name of the business; other times “Memphis” or “Memphis-style” is used to describe a menu item.
“I just think that Memphis is synonymous with great barbecue,” said Linda Orrison, president of the National Barbecue Association.
“As a marketing person myself, I want to tag on a name that creates in my mind good sights and smells and thoughts about my barbecue,” said Orrison, owner of The Shed BBQ & Blues Joint in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Memphis “is a very strong name in barbecue in our world. When I think ‘Memphis,’ I think barbecue. I think most people in the country do.
“To conjure up the sights and smells within that one word, ‘Memphis’ gets it.”
Former Wall Street bond trader Scott Hermo opened Bluff City BBQ in Montclair, New Jersey — 18 miles outside New York City — the day after Christmas. A tagline follows the restaurant’s name: “The Taste of Memphis with a Touch of Soul.”
The 53-year-old Hermo got his first taste of Memphis while working in the bond market, making yearly trips to meet with First Tennessee Bank and Morgan Keegan executives. Those business visits often coincided with the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
“I’d go and check all that stuff out,” Hermo said.
First Tennessee would host a cocktail hour at Memphis’ most famous barbecue restaurant, The Rendezvous. “I know those ribs aren’t even smoked, but that got me going,” he said. “I read a bunch of articles on Memphis-style barbecue. I started making rub that way and homemade sauces. Bluff City, Memphis-style barbecue sauces.”
Even his restaurant interior embraces Memphis in a whole-hog way. “I bought a lot of Memphis-themed sheet music and photos and a bunch of old postcards of Memphis… and made a shadow box to display it,” he said.
Diners up North associate Memphis with good barbecue, even if they may not know how to define the Memphis style. So Hermo’s promotional material explains the Memphis way, stating, “Memphis-style barbecue is traditionally pork-focused, dry-rubbed, smoked low and slow and served with Hermo’s house-made sweet-sour tomato-and-vinegar-based sauce on the side.”
No one has to explain the Memphis style to Melissa Cookston. She’s co-owner of the three Memphis Barbecue Co. restaurants, a two-time Grand Champion of the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Competition, and author of the cleverly titled book, “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room.” Cookson claims to be the ”winningest woman in barbecue.”
Making “Memphis” a part of her restaurants’ names only makes sense, she indicated. “I can attest to the fact that Memphis is internationally recognized for its unique style of barbecue,” she said in an email response to questions.
“For me, my restaurants, as well as other individuals outside of this region to choose to designate menu items as Memphis Barbecue demonstrates the credibility of the term ‘Memphis Barbecue’ and further validates that we are serving the best barbecue in the world, to the world,” she said.
Her explanation of the style varies a bit from Hermo’s. “Memphis-style barbecue generally refers to pork shoulders or butts slowly smoked over hardwood such as pecan or hickory until a texture is achieved where you can ‘pull’ the pork. This results in succulent, juicy meat with most of the fats rendered out.”
The military took Lawrence Jefferson to San Antonio from Memphis, where he had grown up in Whitehaven. When Jefferson decided nine years ago to open a barbecue restaurant in San Antonio, he called it Porky J’s Memphis Style BBQ.
—Inserting ‘Memphis’ into the name has helped draw customers. “Because of the credibility and the barbecue style,” he said.
“Memphis is where barbecue came from. There’s nothing like it. The taste is incredible.”
And so is the brand name Memphis. A year ago, a start-up firm in San Francisco unveiled its work to grow hamburger, sausage and other meats from animal cells. The bio-tech firm needed more investors and a company name that would reassure meat-eaters who might be unsure about cultured meat. The founders tested a dozen names by surveying 1,000 people.
There are, of course, other regional favorites such as Texas beef barbecue, Kansas City barbecue with its thick, tomato- and molasses-based sauce, and the whole-hog North Carolina barbecue featuring a vinegary sauce.
But the Memphis style is “right up there at the top,” said Orrison, the National Barbecue Association president.
“As far as the consumer is concerned, that’s the one word that solidifies barbecue to them.”