Memphis is an amazing city, full of culture, history, and – most importantly – BBQ. No person is more ingrained in the city than John Vergos, owner of Rendezvous, where Memphis BBQ as we know it was invented in 1948. We sat down with John to talk about Rendezvous, Memphis BBQ, and the city he calls home.
The Royal Tour: How did Memphis ribs come about? They were invented right here, right?
John Vergos: My dad is the first guy to sell ribs in a restaurant. Memphis, for years, was a BBQ sandwich town, the shoulder —
TRT: Pork shoulder?
JV: Yeah. And when he discovered this coal chute, he decided to start grilling things. About this time, someone came up to him and said I’ve got all these ribs leftover and you can buy them for virtually nothing. And so my dad starting grilling ribs. People in Memphis, they would cook ribs for holidays, and they may have had them in the grocery store, but he started grilling them and smoking them in his pit. Now we are Greek, so we would just baste them in vinegar and lemon – like Greeks do with all their meats – and salt, pepper, oregano, and garlic. Not long after, he went to New Orleans on vacation and got really into the Cajun seasonings, and chili powders, so when he came back to Memphis he just mixed the two together. That’s the same seasoning – rub as people call it – that we still use today.
It was a unique product, and that’s all he sold at the time. Ribs, and a cheese and sausage appetizer, (Editor’s note: the cheese and sausage is INCREDIBLE here.) and ham and cheese sandwiches. It has grown big. We started with 80 seats, and now we have seating for over 700. And it’s still the same ribs today. And of course, subsequent to that, everybody started selling ribs. Anyone who says they were selling ribs before that is bullshitting you.
TRT: Haha. I am sure! So, as we know, Memphis is one of the great BBQ cities. What makes Memphis BBQ special?
JV: Well, we have been cooking it a long time. As I tell people, there is great BBQ all over Memphis. I know because I eat it. A real Memphian can probably eat 20 different BBQ sandwiches and tell you where they were from. We are real BBQ aficionados.
There is a great debate about whether BBQ started in South Carolina, but we think it for sure started in the Mississippi Delta area. It started in the slave days, because the owners would get the good cuts, and they wouldn’t eat the pigs’ feet or the chitlins, or any of those things, so they were left to the slaves. They would grill them out back with spices. There is just a long history of people in this area grilling pork. This was not a beef area.
TRT: But they have beef on the menus now?
JV: Yes, but it wasn’t a cattle raising area. So they did the best they could with the pieces of meat that they had. A lot of these things, things like sweetbreads and stuff that was just scrap meat, things like short ribs, now they are delicacies. And that’s where Memphis BBQ came from.
TRT: One of the things my readers are going to ask is if you can give any secrets for why the BBQ here at Rendezvous is among the best out there, and has been in business for nearly 70 years now.
JV: There are two things about BBQ. Number one is buy good meat and cook it properly. Now how you sauce it or baste it or season it, that’s kind of a matter of individual taste. With our ribs, we buy really good meat, and hopefully we cook it properly. We don’t smoke it for 20 hours like all these people claim to do. And we hand cook every order. The guys who have been cooking them, like Bobby – you met Bobby up front.
JV: Bobby has been cooking for 46 years. Henry back there has been here I’m sure 30. So we keep our employees for a long time. I am very proud of that. I am also very proud that we have always paid health insurance for our employees. All of our employees get three and a half weeks of paid vacation. We’ve always paid much more than minimum wage.
TRT: That’s incredible for a restaurant!
JV: We have been doing it forever. It is our philosophy that turnover is the bane of the restaurant business. You will be much more successful if you can keep your employees, and pay them better, than if you have a new face every time you show up. I am a supporter of the Affordable Care Act. We have always paid insurance, and our competitors did not. It reflects in our price, but it is the right thing to do. Employees we have had through the years have had serious illnesses, and if they worked for someone else they would be dead.
TRT: That is amazing, and you are to be commended. Moving on to a little about Memphis, you grew up here, right?
TRT: How has the city changed?
JV: Memphis changes a lot. In the old days, the mayor was named Boss Crump. Like what’s his name in Louisiana or Chicago. He ran it like a dictator, and it was voted the cleanest city, the quietest city. Everyone knew their place, and he made sure that included the black people. So I grew up in a segregated city. Then in the 60s it started to change, and we went through the same issues all other Southern cities did. We of course had to suffer through the assassination of Dr. King, and the riots that ensued.
I tell people that Memphis is, how can I put this. We just elected a Caucasian mayor. He defeated an incumbent African-American mayor by a lot. After the election occurred, there were no negative undercurrents, and we are a majority black population. So I think we are a racially mature city these days. A lot of it had to do with the business culture that put a lot of African-Americans on their Board, like Holiday Inn and First Tennessee Bank, and FedEx. We have our crime issues, but all in all we have overcome a lot.
This is one of the poorer areas of the country, but Memphis is an easy, beautiful, and culturally significant city. We are one of the best music cities around, being the home of blues, soul, and rock.
TRT: If someone were to come to Memphis for the first time, what would you suggest doing to really get a feel for the city?
JV: Well first, stay at the Peabody Hotel downtown. (Editor’s note: oops!) Memphis is built along the river, and you can walk up the bluff for the view across. Looking across the river you don’t look at suburbs like in other cities; it’s just floodplain. And now we have the Great River Trail going across the river, so you can walk across into Arkansas.
You should definitely check out Beale Street, and of course, Graceland. Go to Mud Island river park. There is a model there of the Mississippi River that is wonderful.
And eat. Memphis is not a chain city. Sure we have chain restaurants, but this is a city of some of the best mom and pop restaurants anywhere.
TRT: What are some of your favorite spots and hidden gems?
JV: Wow, let me think about that for a second. I love Rhodes College. It is one of the most beautiful campuses anywhere. I also love to look at the homes in Midtown. Overton Park is a wonderful place to spend a day, and you know we have one of the top three or four zoos in the country, right?
What else? Check out some of the art galleries, Brooks and Dixon are two of the best. And the Arcade Restaurant.
TRT: Is there anything else you want our readers to know about Memphis?
JV: Memphis is an easy city to drive in. It’s long (north to south) and narrow. Check out Harbor Town, the River Inn and Miss Cordelia’s. Enjoy some of the galleries on South Main. And don’t miss the Civil Rights Museum.
This is just a great city with a lot of history, and don’t be afraid to immerse in it: the music, the culture, and mostly, the food.
TRT: Thanks, John, for taking the time!