Corky's Bar-B-Que Inc.
Memphis is arguably the barbecue capital of the world. With more than 125 restaurants dedicated to slow-cooked, hickory smoked, Memphis-style barbecue, it’s hard to stand out in the crowd, but Corky’s Bar-B-Que Inc. (Corky’s) has managed to do so for more than 30 years.
“We celebrated our 30-year anniversary in September, but my father, Don Pelts, was in the barbecue business for more than 40 years,” shares Barry Pelts, second-generation co-owner of Corky’s. “With 125 barbecue-only restaurants in Memphis, it’s certainly hard to shine here, but we’ve been fortunate to be voted No. 1, 21 years out of the 30 years we’ve been in business as the reader’s choice among local papers. We consider ourselves the best, but the people are the voice and deciding factor.”
Bringing it close to home
Barry points to a couple of major factors that have contributed to Corky’s continuous success and fan base. One; hands-on family ownership, two; a unique location and last but not least, a drive-thru window. In the early 1970s Don began to visualize his version of a Memphis-style barbecue joint. He spent over a decade operating an existing establishment and in 1983 he finally set out to realize his own restaurant.
He pictured a small, cozy place with wood walls, polished brass and interior brick, neon colors in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as well as hits on the playlist, servers in bow ties and white shirts and a drive-thru window. Something on that list doesn’t sound like it fits, but it worked.
“Starting a barbecue place in Memphis often means going into tough neighborhoods due to the competition,” explains Barry. “Instead of doing that, my father thought; why not go near the suburbs where people eat and work and bring it closer to home. And the second important thing he did was combining casual dining with wait staff and a drive-thru window.”
At first, Don didn’t mark the drive-thru, but as soon as he did the line of cars was around the block. “The minute he did that, the line was around the block for six hours a day,” recalls Barry. “The drive-thru was a quick, easy way for people to get the barbecue they love, but we’re not fast food, we’re the opposite.”
“People can come through and order three racks of ribs, two pounds of pork and a quarter-pound of slaw and we can have it ready in 90 seconds, but that’s because of the processes and systems we have in place in our efficient kitchen,” compares Barry. “This has been a huge part of our success.”
Putting some love in BBQ
Just as Barry says, Corky’s is certainly not fast food, Memphis-style barbecue takes time, care and of course, passion for great food. “My father was about as hands-on as you can be,” shares Barry. “He was a type-A personality and he was willing to risk it all to see his dream come true. For the first 10 or 12 years, I think he worked seven days a week and he didn’t take a day off. Every single piece of food that went out of the kitchen he watched to make sure it was perfect.”
That same level of careful preparation remains today after Don’s passing with Barry and his brother-in-law, as well as partner, Andy Woodman, running the show. All of Corky’s meats are slow-cooked over hickory wood and charcoal, done the old-fashioned way. Each slab of ribs is trimmed out to very tight specifications and every pork shoulder is hand-pulled.
A fourth location, same family-like feel
Corky’s big-flavor food and friendly service has warranted so much Memphis success, the company recently launched its fourth location coupled with robust online retail sales of its sauces and spice-rub blends.
“We just opened our fourth location about four months ago,” shares Barry. “It’s the first store we’ve ever built from the ground up and what’s even more special is my father helped select the design and layout of the location before he passed away.”
The fourth Corky’s incorporates some elements Barry says his father always wanted in other locations but couldn’t deliver because of building codes and restrictions. “We now have a large size bar, serving as a place where people can relax while they wait for a table,” notes Barry. “We also have a large patio that can accommodate large groups, seating up to 50 people, which is something my father always wanted. The building is really a testament to him.”
Not only did Don build a Memphis institution, he also established a family-like company culture, fostering long employee tenure. “Our general managers across locations have been with us for 20 years or more and the average kitchen employee has been with Corky’s for about 19 years –that’s unheard of in the restaurant business,” adds Barry.
Over the years, the business has not only earned a reputation for award-winning barbecue, winning over Memphis one plate at a time, Corky’s Bar-B-Que Inc. has also established a time-honored family tradition.