Thu04242014

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65 years and still cookin’

outisde the Four Way Grill in South Memphis
On Tuesday (Oct. 25), Bates and a host of hungry Four Way Grill guests from myriad parts of the city took note of the landmark restaurant’s 65 years of doing business. by George Tillman Jr.
Special to the Tri-State Defender

In the heart of South Memphis at the corner of Mississippi and Walker, there’s a mouth watering, belly filling, toe tingling “food ship” captained by Willie Earl Bates.

 
 Four Way Grill owner Willie Earl Bates (right) told Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and other anniversary guests that the key to the landmark restaurant’s historic run is the patronage of ordinary, everyday people. (Photos by George Tillman Jr.)

On Tuesday (Oct. 25), Bates and a host of hungry Four Way Grill guests from myriad parts of the city took note of the landmark restaurant’s 65 years of doing business.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell – his voice resonating with assurance about the truth that he was asserting – talked of sustainability. The longevity of the Four Way Grill, said Luttrell, falls squarely on the shoulders of Bates and a wonderful personality that makes the restaurant a place for great fellowship.

Through the years, many a business has come and gone in that segment of Memphis, but the Four Way Grill still is here (at 998 Mississippi) serving the community, said County Commissioner Sidney Chism.

 Many Memphis-area residents, some more high profile than others, turn to the Four Way Grill as a point of reference for personal, professional and/or community milestones.

Attorney and former Judge D’Army Bailey took the crowd down memory lane, recalling how the location was once a beauty and barbershop, where his mother worked, and a poolroom with the restaurant in the back.

Jeffrey Higgs, executive director of the Lemoyne-Owen College Community Development Corporation, said years ago he came to recognize the restaurant as a pillar of strength economically, with good nutritional food available at a very reasonable price. And that, he said, is still the case.

 There was a time, said the Rev. James L. Netters, Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood pastor and former City Council member, when meals were served at what then was the backdoor. No, not because of any racial discrimination, it’s just that the entrance was in the back.

For Elaine Turner of Heritage Tours, The Four Way Grill is a plus to her route and visitors.  

And Tim Sampson, communications director for the Stax Museum, said years of feeding Stax Records guests has made the restaurant a marketing tool in Germany.

The foundation

This landmark platter of southern good cooking was the vision and dream of Clint and Irene Cleaves. It was founded on common sense – people had to eat so why not feed them. And for 50-plus years that wisdom served to draw the known and unknown, everybody and anybody, the dreamer and the visionary, the passing through and those staying for a while.

Along the way, there were some challenges, including some substantive financial hurdles that led to a momentary shutdown in the 1990’s. A mayoral advisory committee helped identify a way to keep the landmark restaurant going.

Mrs. Cleaves, who outlived her husband, died in 1998, and Bates took over ownership. A major renovation proceeded a reopening in 2002.

So what does Bates think is the reason for the restaurant’s longevity in one location?

“We welcome the stars; however, we have survived because of the patronage of ordinary, everyday people in this community,” he said.

Ask to recall his most memorable moment, a smile parted Bates’ lips. It was, he said, the dream-come-true day that he realized he would be the owner.

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