394 NORTH WATKINS, MR. BOBBY QUE
Earlier this month, The Commercial Appeal ran a story about FoxCee’s Overton Park Bar and Grill, slated to open by the end of this month at 394 N. Watkins. The story mentioned a couple of earlier establishments at that location – a vegetarian restaurant (Balewa’s, which brings to mind the concept of onomatopoeia) and a coffee shop (the Edge).
Further back, of course, it was home to the much-loved and greatly missed Lupe and Bea’s from the mid 1980s and into the 1990s, and briefly before that, a barbecue restaurant – Mr. Bobby Que.
Mr. Bobby Que – Bobby Hendricks – is a self-styled “research scientist” in barbecue and a teacher of his techniques. He’s also the self-described first “personality” in the field of barbecue, long before the Food Network and others were even imagined. The main sources for this post are a January 1980 column in The CA by its legendary writer, Bill Thomas, and a biography by Eric Parton in Hendricks’ 1976 book on barbecuing. There are also a couple of newspaper stories from 1983. The events, dates and places from these various accounts don’t always jibe, but this is the gist of the story. (My apologies for the clunky format; had to do it on Firefox.)
Thomas and Parton cite different dates for Hendricks’ arrival in Memphis (1972, or 1970), but the Conroe, Texas, native (b. circa 1942) found himself in the Bluff City with an eye on a music career. His biography says he had begun to pursue music in Los Angeles at the age of 15, and appeared on “American Bandstand” singing backup to big names, including Bobby Bland, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Things were looking up.
He also brought with him a love of barbecuing, instilled early on by his grandfather, who was considered the best pit man around Mt. Zion, Texas.
But the music dream was snuffed out when Hendricks was an innocent bystander as two men were fighting outside a club in Orange Mound. A shotgun was involved and it went off, hitting Hendricks in the chest and right arm. Critically wounded, Hendricks hung on at John Gaston Hospital as doctors waited 10 hours to get the blood he would need for surgery. They saved him, but his arm was severely mangled. By 1974. after four more operations and a lot of physical therapy, Hendricks had regained most of the movement in his arm, but its strength was largely gone.
Parton writes that Hendricks struggled after this, taking any job he could to support his young family but finding his physical limitations daunting. He says this was the time Hendricks turned to cooking as a possible way forward, and soon realized that his barbecue was what got people’s attention. Parton says Hendricks spent four years developing his sauce, and three years designing “the right cooking bowl for charcoaling” (consecutively or concurrently? Don’t know.) One of the 1983 newspaper articles said he had spent 23 years “studying” pork and beef ribs, and quotes Hendricks as saying: “It took me at least seven years to produce poor barbecue… . After those seven years, the barbecue took a turn for the better.”
Another 1983 newspaper story says that in 1975, Hendricks was in Oakland, Calif., doing his barbecue research. But we do know for certain that in 1976, Hendricks was in Memphis, building his brand as a barbecue personality and publishing a book, “Barbeque with Mr. Bobby Que.” The book covered all the usual bases – selecting equipment and firewood, discussing the various types of meat for barbecuing, recipes for sauces and side dishes, and tips for cooking – plus memories of family gatherings back in Texas. It included pictures of Rufus Thomas, and was illustrated by Rick Alley of The CA.
In the book’s introduction, Hendricks recounts his 1976 appearance on Marge Thrasher’s call-in TV show “Straight Talk.” He called WHBQ, told Thrasher’s secretary that his barbecue was the best “bar none,” asked for an appearance on the show, and promised to bring plenty of food. He said the show had just added a “kitchen,” and he would be the first to use it. After his 9 a.m. segment, folks in the studio swarmed the kitchen set to get a taste of his ribs and chicken.
The time from 1976 to 1980 is a bit murky, but from Thomas’ January 1980 column (the lead photo of this post accompanied that article) we know that Hendricks had been cooking for a restaurant that had closed in May 1979, and his effort to open a place under his own name on Airways had been derailed when his backer pulled out. Thomas doesn’t give an exact address on Airways, but from the photograph, it is 2291 Airways, which had been a Berretta’s until 1976 when it was sold to Will Lyons, who opened Will’s Bar-B-Q. Was Hendricks cooking for Lyons? Don’t know. Hendricks did tell Thomas this:
“Business was good, but the guy with the money just didn’t want to be in barbecue. I used to walk into the dining room and cheers would go up. I was making people happy and they were making me happy, eating my barbecue.”
At any rate, Hendricks was ready for his own place at 2291 Airways, until his backer backed out. Again, Hendricks to Thomas: “The building has my name all over it, and people keep asking me when I’m going to open up. They won’t believe that I’m penniless. That’s the trouble with being on TV or in the newspaper or having your name up on the side of a building where everyone can see it. People just assume that if you’re getting that much attention, you’re doing OK. They won’t believe that personalities go broke.”
And this: “Here I am, good at something – but I can’t do it. It’s not the town, either. This is a great city for barbecue. Memphis sells more barbecue than any city in the world. A lot of it is not very good barbecue. People here will drive 50 miles for good barbecue. So the city is crying for barbecue. And here I am – a barbecuer in a barbecue town – and I can’t get work.”
Finally: “I feel like I paid my dues in Memphis. This is where I got hurt as an innocent bystander – and this is where I became a barbecue personality. Besides, this is the capital of barbecue. This is the big time. It’s worth fighting to stay here.”
So he did. Six weeks later, The CA ran an item about his new place, in an empty fast-food restaurant on Watkins at Overton Park. He went into partnership with Rev. W.A. Sesley, who was pastor of Morningstar Baptist Church. Mr. Bobby Que opened in March, and lasted no more than two or three years. I was living here at the time, but barbecue wasn’t a big interest for me then. Barbecue started and stopped at John Wills on Central (a ghost pit I regret not photographing), with an occasional visit to the Public Eye.
For his trials and tribulations in Memphis, Hendricks did earn this paragraph in John Egerton’s 1987 book “Southern Food,” in the chapter titled “On the Barbecue Circuit”:
“The story of Bobby Hendricks, a.k.a. Bobby Que, is illustrative of the magnetic pull and potency of the pit culture in Tennessee. A native of Texas, Hendricks migrated to Memphis in 1970, hoping to make a name for himself as a rhythm and blues and gospel singer. But it was the gospel of barbecue that fired his soul and his imagination, and after seven years of experimental cooking he published a book, “Mr. Bobby Que,” that included testimony on his secret sauces. At last report, the self-styled “barbecue research scientist” had moved to the West Coast, hoping to evangelize the heathen masses into the pork kingdom.”
The 1983 wire service stories are datelined San Jose and Oakland, Calif. I did my usual searches to try to find Hendricks, calling numbers in California and his native Texas, and sending a couple of letters to Texas addresses. Not having heard anything in more than a week, I ‘m pretty sure they are “return to sender.” Maybe he’ll stumble upon this. I did buy his cookbook.
Looking online, you’ll find several videos for “Mr. Bobby Que” from 2007, which are infomercials for a rub/sauce/mop package he was selling. There is one video of seven minutes; the shorter ones are cut from it. There is also link to a blog radio site from 2011 or so that lasts an hour. I think it was a call-in program, but in the opening 15 minutes I listened to, no one did. He did say his promotional efforts were aimed at putting “a face on barbecue.” Later, he mentioned a face other than his own, referring to himself as the Rodney Dangerfield of barbecue: “I don’t get no respect.”