Opinion » The Rant

The Rant (February 5, 2015)

The Cheesecake Factory, Shake Shack, Earnestine and Hazel’s, The P&H Cafe, Wanda Wilson, and true Memphis originals.



I know I'm no economics or business expert, but am I the only person in Memphis who could care less about a Cheesecake Factory restaurant or IKEA furniture store coming to Memphis? I know that means jobs and all, but is that really what Memphis needs — another chain restaurant and a generic furniture store?

I'm probably wrong in my way of thinking, but I think the thing about Memphis that makes it so special is something people in the tourism industry refer to as "authentic assets." I call it "cool shit you can find only in Memphis," but that's just me. One of the things that got me started thinking about all this was running across a story about the New York City-based Shake Shack restaurant business going public last Friday with an IPO. Shake Shack used to be a charming little one-of-a-kind food cart that caught on so well, because of its great hot dogs and burgers, that people in New York started standing in long lines to get lunch. Cool as can be. But now I read this from some financial publication:

"Shake Shack was founded by Danny Myer, a restaurateur from St. Louis who made his name with high-end establishments like New York's Union Square Café. Shake Shack started as a hot-dog cart in Madison Square Park in 2001 and became a brick-and-mortar fixture of New York City by 2004. Mr. Meyer's 21-percent stake in the company was worth more than $340 million as of Friday afternoon. Shake Shack's revenue grew 41 percent from a year earlier to $83.8 million in the 39 weeks through September 24th, while net income fell by a fifth to $3.5 million, as it opened 20 new restaurants in the period."

I suppose it's the American dream to want to get rich selling burgers, but it's kind of depressing to me to think that a cool hot dog cart has turned into something being traded on the stock market. It would be like Earnestine & Hazel's expanding all over the globe and selling their Soul Burgers to the masses and becoming something people could invest in. Gone would be the old griddle in the former brothel, where Steve cooks up those piles of sweated onions with Worcestershire sauce and flat burger patties and turns them into the most gooey, delicious cheeseburgers in the world. And it is the only place in the world you can get them. It's an authentic asset. It's cool shit you can find only in Memphis. And you certainly aren't going to get them at a Cheesecake Factory.

To be perfectly fair, I have never been to a Cheesecake Factory restaurant, because I don't like chain restaurants. Nothing personal against O'Charley's, Denny's, Chili's, Applebee's, or any of the other big chain restaurants (and forget about fast food, altogether, except, of course, for Krystal, which is exempt from all comparisons because it is food of the Gods, no matter what). Why would I want to go to a place like that when I could just as easily eat at a restaurant that is unique and owned by a local person and is interesting? There's nothing interesting about those chain restaurants that I can see or feel or taste. So why all the fuss about a Cheesecake Factory coming to town? It's kind of a hick-like response to me: "Aw, Memphis has finally made it. We got us a dang Cheesecake Factory. Now, ain't we cool."

People, Memphis is already cool. You just have to know where to go. Would you rather have tamales at Chili's or would you rather go to Hattie's Tamale House on Willie Mitchell Boulevard in South Memphis just across the street from Royal Studios, where Al Green recorded all his smash Hi Records hits and Bruno Mars just recorded some of the tracks to the new monster hit "Uptown Funk?" Would you rather have shrimp at a Captain D's or would you rather go to Chef Gary Williams' Déjà Vu on Florida Street, where exactly seven tables occupy a tiny brick building that formerly housed a storefront church and where the food is as good as any New Orleans' restaurant?

Wanda Wilson - BRANDON DILL
  • Brandon Dill
  • Wanda Wilson

And while we are on the topic of authentic Memphis and what sets us apart from cities like Dallas and Atlanta, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge one woman and that one woman's "beer joint of your dreams." I'm talking about the recent passing of the legendary Wanda Wilson, founder of the famed P&H Café. This is another massive loss for Memphis, and one that comes on the heels of many other recent losses. Wanda was a true and genuine character, with her wigs and hats and outlandish outfits, but as many of us know, she was also a mother, sister, confidante, inspiration, and just plain wonderful friend to thousands of people in this city. There's no other place on earth like the P&H Café, and there will never be another Wanda Wilson. Wanda, you helped make Memphis one of the coolest cities in the world, and we will miss you terribly.

I just hope Memphis can learn a lesson from you about being an original.

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