“You can get it chopped; you can get it pulled. We have white; we have dark; we have finely chopped; we have chunky. … And believe me; Memphis is funny about barbecue. Some people they want it pulled. Some people want it chopped. Some people want it chopped fine. Barbecue is serious in Memphis, Tennessee.” – Doug Walker
Doug Walker believes in the virtues of “laying down food,” tasty and substantial Southern fare that makes you want to lie down and take a nap. Slow-smoked barbecue sandwiches, beans and slaw, and super-sweet tea so thick, “you can use it on your pancakes.”
Clyde Gridley stated Gridley’s in 1975. Seeking to revolutionize the barbecue-experience, he added white tablecloths and tuxedoed servers. But after the tragic death of the young Mr. Gridley, the restaurant floundered for several decades.
Though only in the barbecue business for two years, Mr. Walker has high-hopes for this once-cherished Memphis institution. Minus the tablecloths and tuxedoes, he aims to bring Gridley’s back to what its namesake started.
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: Doug Walker
Rien T. Fertel: This is Rien Fertel with the Southern Foodways Alliance. It is Wednesday, July 16, 2008, a little after 2:00. We are at Gridley’s with Mr. Doug Walker. Gridley’s is at 6842 Stage Road, Bartlett, Tennessee which is a suburb just east of Memphis. So I’m here with Mr. Walker, and Mr. Walker; please introduce yourself and give us your birth date.
Doug Walker: Hello; my name is Doug Walker, and August 16, 1960 is my birthday.
Okay; and can you tell us your—your position here at Gridley’s?
Me and my wife own Gridley’s. We bought it about two years ago.
Okay; so you own Gridley’s. Gridley’s has a long Memphis tradition. Let’s get what you know about that; let’s—let’s start with what you know about who founded Gridley’s, who was Gridley—?
Mr. Clyde Gridley started Gridley’s. He worked for Loeb’s Barbecue and I think he was one of his General Managers and Mr. Loebs was getting out of the barbecue business and he told Mr. Gridley, he said I’ll sell you this store. So Mr. Gridley started on Summer Avenue and within two or three years Mr. Clyde and his wife did so well that they moved down to the French Village. And it just took off from there. … But he—his—his sales, they said lines used to be out the door. They said on Friday and Saturday night—he was really the first—he was a visionary. He was really the first barbecue guy that gave barbecue some class, and he made a big Gridley’s. Most barbecue restaurants prior to him were smaller and he come out with the concept of bigger—bigger restaurants.
So he almost went from like juke-joint kind of barbecue joints to sit-down restaurants?
How do you remember him doing this?
Well what I remember was that when I first—a friend of mine first introduced me to Gridley’s, and we went by there and I was real impressed with the guys dressed up in tux and serving barbecue. That kind of just threw me you know. [Laughs] And—and we—and then they would wait on you like your—your tea glasses; there would be a guy standing up there and an older guy and he would point to them that your tea was low and somebody would get over on that table, so he added a lot of class to barbecue that—that wasn’t there prior to Mr. Gridley.
So the waiters would be in tuxedos?
They would be in tuxedos.
Would—would they have tablecloths on the tables?
Oh yeah tablecloths, and when you got through eating they would have hot towels that they would bring you to wipe your hands. They had a big thing that they set out back that they just kept the towels in and they would come and they would hand you—they would have a tray and it would be hot towels they would hand you to wash your hands after you got through eating barbecue.
Do you remember the first time you went to Gridley’s or ever going there when you were younger?
Yeah; it was—it was about in ’79—’79, ’80 something along there and I was real impressed with the barbecue and the taste of it and every time we would come to Memphis we wanted to go to Gridley’s, so—. You know when this come up for sale and I found out about it, I love cooking anyway; and when it come up for sale that’s when me and the wife decided we would purchase it and we wanted to bring the chain back to what it used to be.
Do you remember anything special about the meat [Clyde Gridley] cooked?
Sandwiches and ribs, and his beans tasted different. You know a lot of people just open up a can and they pour it out, a lot of the beans, and he come up with recipes that were different, you know that weren’t—that weren’t ordinary you know and the sauce was a milder sauce and then he had a hot sauce. And so if you wanted a barbecue with hot sauce on it you—you got that and it was just—it was different. He—a lot of people put fat in everything in their barbecue and he had guys and they’d chop it up and they would go through the fat and they removed it so you got a leaner piece of meat. And that impressed me too ‘cause it’s—it’s nothing worse than getting a big old wad of fat when you’re eating.
And the recipes, the menu—do they date back to the original—?
Date back to Mr. Clyde. … I would describe it as the taste of Memphis and that’s our—you know that’s our—that—that’s a trademark that we use—that Gridley’s is the taste of Memphis. We go back with these recipes and we have people come from all over the country that eat—that ate at Gridley’s when they were younger, from Florida, from Los Angeles that when they come back in town they come to this little restaurant. And it’s surprising to me. And then when we ship stuff in December all over the country; Ohio—slabs of ribs everywhere. And it just kind of shocked me the brand recognition that we still have and that people call up and say we—put it this way; we—we open at 11:00 on Sundays and we got a phone call on Saturday night.
Is it tough moving from Greenwood, Mississippi to Memphis?
It was tough; I’m—I’m a country boy and it was tough. It’s like a shock to your system when you come up here but we’ve got—we’ve got the store in Conway [Arkansas] we just opened three weeks ago and that’s more my speed. But we’ve got—we’ve got to expand the chain; we have got to have a presence here in Memphis, yeah; so—.
So tell me about how you cook a butt here; how do you start off? Do you—do you season it before it goes on the pit? Tell me about—tell me about the process from—
Season it—season it with a seasoning and then we cook it for about 14 hours at about 200-degrees, long and slow.
Right; and—and tell me about the sandwich. Is it—is it chopped; does it come with slaw?
Well we say, you get it your way at Gridley’s. You can get it chopped; you can get it pulled. We have white; we have dark; we have finely chopped; we have chunky but—and a lot of people when they come in you know we just tell them, hey, you just tell us what you want you know because—. And believe me; Memphis is funny about barbecue. Some people they want it pulled. Some people want it chopped. Some people want it chopped fine. [Laughs] Barbecue is serious in Memphis, Tennessee. [Laughs]
Yeah; and well let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about barbecue in Memphis. Well is it—is it that serious anywhere else—Arkansas, Mississippi?
I have never seen anywhere that it’s more serious than around here. [Laughs] We—we ran out of sauce for two or three weeks and buddy, people was mad. I had an old guy and he was cussing at me he was so mad.
Do you think you have to eat barbecue to be a—a Memphisonian? Do you have to like it?
I think if you don't, I wouldn’t tell nobody. [Laughs]
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.