“We’re on the corner, it’s cozy; and sometimes people will say let’s go to Cozy, others will say Cozy C. You know you just give different names to it and it’s wonderful.” – Desiree Robinson
Cozy Corner Restaurant
Family and the restaurant Raymond Robinson built are inseparable. Four generations of Robinsons work at Cozy Corner, opened in 1977. The founder’s daughter Val Bradley oversees operations. Grandson Shun Williams not yet a teenager, works the cash register with great aplomb. And in the business’ third decade, Raymond’s widow Desiree Robinson—though never having done so before—assumed the duty of part-time pit-cook following his passing.
A well-established element of the Memphis barbecue tradition, things are nevertheless done a bit differently here. A Chicagoan, aquarium-style barbecue pit in the front of the restaurant greets customers. Sliced instead of chopped pork dresses the sandwiches and plates. Smoked turkey and barbecued Cornish hens are specialties.
The smoke, the eclectic soundtrack, the family are all testaments to Raymond Robinson’s legacy. Forsaking retirement, Mrs. Robinson vows that she will never stop working at the Cozy Corner.
We first visited Cozy Corner Restaurant in 2002 as part of our initial foray into documenting Memphis ‘cue, a project that included photographs, original essays and a smattering of oral history interviews. Visit the original Cozy Corner Restaurant page.
What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Desiree Robinson, Bobby Bradley, Jr., Shun Williams
Rien T. Fertel: This is Rien Fertel with the Southern Foodways Alliance. It is Wednesday, July 2, 2008. I’m at the Cozy Corner Restaurant at 745 North Parkway in Memphis, Tennessee. I am sitting here with Desiree Robinson. To begin Mrs. Robinson; if you don't mind please give me your name and date of birth.
Desiree Robinson: My name is Desiree Robinson. I was born May 14, 1937.
Thank you very much. And to begin I just would like to begin with your childhood, how you grew up in this area. As I understand you’re not from Tennessee but you are from Mississippi?
Yes; I was born in Lexington, Mississippi and I was there until I was five years old. I came to Memphis when it was time for me to go to school. My mother wanted me to be educated in Memphis, and so I came to Memphis when it was time for me to go to school and—and lived with my mom and dad. And I went to school in Memphis. Started school, went to the twelfth grade and then went to Tuskegee to—to college and got married and—.
Well tell me about what you ate growing up. Well first, what did your parents do? What were their professions?
My mother was a woolen silk processor for the Naval Base. My dad was in construction. And we ate very common foods; we ate fried chicken, pork chops. We ate all kinds of vegetables. We ate vegetables when there was very little meat to eat; neck bones, we ate hamburger and gravy and—and stuff. There were not a whole lot of restaurants that we were able to go to, so most of the cooking was done at home and—and I started cooking for the family when I was eight.
And what did you cook?
Everything they ate. Dinner had to be on the table by 5:15 when they came in and there had to be something sweet. It didn’t have to be a pie or a cake but something sweet; it could be iced tea or lemonade but there had to be one thing sweet with the meal.
And do you have any early memories of barbecue? Was it eaten for holidays or special occasions?
My—the earliest memory I have of barbecue is my mother taking a tub and putting a screen over it and barbecuing. I never saw men barbecue or heard of men barbecuing until much later. The women did it; the men made—made the sauce but—but that was the first—. I—I—we never did barbecuing when I was in the country, when I was in Mississippi.
[In Memphis] do you remember going out for barbecue at the old barbecue joints? Do you remember going to maybe Beale Street?
Yes; I do. We—we would go—there was a place, oh my goodness I can't think of the name—oh Culpepper’s was one place I can remember. There was another one; John Somebody’s Barbecue down the street but Culpepper’s was not far—right off of Beale Street and we would go there and that was the place that my husband, he dearly loved their barbecue. And he said one of these days he might have a place like that and he wanted his barbecue to be good just like theirs.
And well let’s talk about your husband. His name was Raymond Robinson. … Where was he born and where did he grow up?
Raymond was born in Jefferson, Arkansas right near Pine Bluff. … His family moved from Arkansas to Memphis. He came to Memphis when he was in the second grade and went to school over at Cairns Elementary and then came to Manassas in high school and I met him in high school when he was in high school.
When did you get married?
We got married in 1958. I left school—I graduated from high school and went to Tuskegee and he graduated from high school and went to Japan to the service, and went to Japan and we got engaged in high school but we decided not to get married until later, until he came back and I got out of school. And so we were engaged for four years and he got out of the service. He left the service a little bit before the four years, so he went to Denver. When we got married he had been there for a year and of course I went to Denver to live with him. We were there for about nine years and then we came—came back home and that was our intention all the time to come back home but we didn’t intend to stay there that long and things just began to happen. Eventually well actually not long after we got there we realized we weren’t going to find any good barbecue. There were one or two places there but it just wasn’t what we liked, so we just stopped going to barbecue places and started cooking barbecue at home and playing with recipes. And we—we would invite our friends over to join us and they were raving so and saying you just need to open a place; you just—do that because your barbecue is so good. We did and for a few years we—we were—we ran the business and we called it Ray’s Barbecue on Williams Street in Denver. And—and then when we decided to come back home we—we closed it. We came back home and—and didn’t open this place right away. But eventually we found it and did. We were looking for a place, but we found this place.
And did he continue to cook at home during this time?
You know he was an excellent cook and he always cooked at home. We would share the cooking. And that was one thing I dearly loved about being married to him; he liked to cook. He said it relaxed him.
And what were your favorite things that he cooked?
Once he died I knew that I would never taste a steak that was fit to eat.
Let’s talk about the restaurant [Cozy Corner]. It opened in 1977?
Nineteen-seventy seven yes.
And opening the restaurant at this location in this neighborhood did it have to do with the fact that you grew up not too far away?
It had absolutely nothing to do with that. What it had to do with was the fact that it was set up already and it—we weren’t real, real particular at that time about where the location would be. But when we found this place with a barbecue pit that we could cook the food in front of the customers and had the equipment, a lot of the equipment that we would—you know and it had formerly been a barbecue place, closed for some time, but that—that was what sold us, because we felt like people—we knew that we would go wherever we had to go to get what we wanted, so we felt like other people would do that too.
So tell me and there’s a beautiful kind of glass encased barbecue pit that you use to cook all the food. That was here before you moved in?
Yes; yes that was one of the—the main thing that attracted us to the place. This is I understand a Chicago style pit and back in years ago they would—they would be—the pit would be at the corner just like it is but people would drive thru, drive around and the barbecue would be handed to them out the window. Of course ours is not a drive-in but customers are able to see us cooking when they come in.
And when Mr. Robinson was alive, was he the main Pit Cook? Did he cook all of the meat?
He cooked; my son cooked, and that—‘cause my son backed him up and we began to—as the business began to grow we added a night cook.
And what did you do in the restaurant? What did you prepare?
I worked for Bell South and supported my husband and my children who ran the restaurant. I thought they were doing a beautiful job; I knew they were working like dogs. I stayed out of here. [Laughs] No; really I would come in for lunch and stuff but I didn’t—I didn’t work in here actually until after he died. I came down one day with the intentions of supporting the children just to let them know. You know what I used to tell them when he was alive? I said now you need to be your daddy’s shadow. Learn everything he knows because if he dies before I do you will be immediately unemployed if you don't know what to do ‘cause I don't have any intentions of working in food anywhere, any time. I came down after he died just to—I said I need to go down and give them some support. Sat around a day or two and when I knew anything I was coming every day all day loving every minute of it and—and that was seven years ago. And I told my daughter I will never ever again retire. She’s taking me out of here on stretchers ‘cause I love it.
And were any of Mr. Robinson’s family involved, his mother or—?
His mother—his mother, she held court on that bench over there and she would sit down and entertain the customers, every day—now she’s 87 years old now. And every day somebody comes in and asks about her and reminds me that no matter how long it had been since they would have been in here, when they came back she would—she would tell them what they talked about the last time. But she’s 87 years old; she is confined to the house but she is doing just fine. As a matter of fact, about a year and a half ago she was diagnosed with an illness and they told her she only had six months to live, so they put her in Hospice care. Last fall they told her they’d have to take the people away from her because they had to send their people to somebody who needed them. She didn’t need them; she’s doing fine. I asked her one day; I said Nevalle how are you feeling? She said well I feel bad sometimes. Well I feel bad more than that you know. [Laughs] But—but she’s doing great; she really is. She doesn’t get out but she is doing great and she was a vital part of this business because she—she encouraged my husband and she—from that bench over there she helped him actually run the business and keep everybody—oh she kept everybody in line. [Laughs]
Okay; so working here today in 2008 how many generations of the family are here?
There—normally there are four generations; almost all the time there are four generations here and that’s because she cannot get out anymore, so she doesn’t come into the restaurant anymore but we are a five-generation family. We are blessed because everybody is doing fine and the—the four that are here, the youngest is 14 months, but everybody works and we are working on here, teaching her to say thank you so that she can start to work. All—everybody started work—all of my grandchildren started work when they learned how to talk. They sat on that bench—we had a stool at—up by the—in front of the pit and they sat on it and said to the customers as they left—thank you for coming; come back again. And I think y’all started out with about 25-cents a week right, very—very low salaries. One day my youngest granddaughter came up to me and she said grandma I need a raise. She was about four. She said I need a raise. I said well honey your mother handles that; you need to talk to her. I said but when you talk to her if she doesn’t give it to you come back to grandmom. [Laughs]
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.