Posted on October 17, 2013 by Marina
Meet Memphis Fire BBQ – a local favourite in Winona, Ontario (just outside of Hamilton).
It all started when chefs Steve and Lori Popp wanted to bring together southern barbeque, 50′s drive-in classics, regional and international comfort food combined with integrity, passion, care and all made from scratch.
What can you expect to see on the menu? Delicious pulled pork sandwiches, brisket entrees, and “the best burgers known to man”, including their famous “Sneaky Cheese” that pair very well with our Pilsner.
Catching up with Steve Popp himself, we had the pleasure of chatting with these fine folks at Memphis Fire. Take a look…
How would you describe Memphis Fire BBQ to someone who has never been there before?
Memphis defies your expectations from the moment you hear about it. We don’t advertise, so most people hear about us through a friend or a neighbour, I think our marketing budget is in the ballpark of $4,000.00 per year. We’re set back from a rural highway just outside of Hamilton, most people have no idea where we are and most GPS maps can’t locate us. Once you pull into the parking lot, our building isn’t an architectural masterpiece by any stretch; it’s fitting to our needs, but doesn’t inspire thoughts of anything high end. With that all being said, once you step into the restaurant, you’re greeted with warmth and genuine hospitality that can only come from a comfortable room and a genuine passion that comes from a small family run restaurant.
There is no blaring music, just a vintage jukebox, no sports on big televisions; just one screen with information about the restaurant, no high end bar with flair, just authentic milkshakes, beer, wine and Steam Whistle is the only draft.
Once people are comfortable, one look on the menu tells you that we aren’t a typical modern restaurant. We cater to carnivores, and everything is big, if you leave Memphis Fire hungry, then there is something wrong. Our entire menu is produced in-house from fresh product, we serve 12 to 14 thousand people per month, and we have 20 cubic feet of freezer space; of that 10 cubic feet is just for ice cream. Another thing that surprises people is that the kitchen is run by industry vets with long pedigrees in fine dining and culinary education, all together there is over 50 years of experience running the kitchen and I think that level of craftsmanship is apparent in every bite of food.
A common experience among our customers is they come here expecting big box corporate restaurant food and find that there is so much more to the food and beverage options than they expected, more of a dining experience than just food to eat. We change people’s expectations of what a quick service restaurant is every day and that never gets old.
Where did the idea for a 50’s style diner come from?
The inspiration for the decor came from a spot in North Carolina called Big Nells. It is very similar to Memphis Fire in that it is in the middle of nowhere, just north of Myrtle Beach. I remember the first time I went there, it just felt like home and when it came time for me to design Memphis, I went with the same approach. If I had the opportunity to serve 60 people in my basement or “man-cave” as they call it now, how would I do it? I would draw on what I hold dear and what really motivates Lori and I in how we live our lives.
I would say that the 50’s and all the optimism that decade had truly speaks to both of us; we agree that if there was a decade in the last century that really sums up our ideals, it would be that decade. It was a decade that was the last time, that no matter where you ate, there was someone behind the counter that created food from scratch, no cans, bottles or frozen convenience food. People cared about what they did for a living, no matter what it was; people in general had a strong work ethic. These ideals were driven into both of us by our parents, and is what bonds us together as a couple for sure. We both like things the way they used to be, even though we are far too young to ever have been a part of that era, we are most definitely shaped by that time.
That being said, everything at Memphis is vintage by age and not reproduction. I scoured from Toledo to Los Angeles to Connecticut for vintage items to be a part of the feel of the restaurant, and most of my prized items are 25 to 50 years older than me.
You have received many awards – what do you think has been your key to success?
This concept had been rattling around in my brain for 12 years before we opened up. I spent many hours in front of a smoker and many more hours on opening my spice company to develop all of our signature spices we now use here. In fact, the name Memphis Fire is the name of our dry rub that I started selling in 2002, when we opened up it just seemed like the right name to call the restaurant. When we opened, we knew that three key factors would be the catalyst for our success.
Be optimistic, maintain high standards no matter the cost and treat everyone like family.
When we were building the dining room, Lori found an inspirational piece of canvas art that became our daily mantra. It reads “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” and this phrase kept us true to our ideals.
We’ve never compromised our food quality, been lucky enough to hire the right people underneath us and are blessed to have a wealth of hands on business experience in my parents who are involved on a daily basis. We realized at the beginning, that people come to a restaurant to eat, not a mind blowing revelation, but the food could never suffer from all the perils in the restaurant industry. We work with local and family run suppliers, we only purchase top quality ingredients and we craft everything by hand with years of professional training. It helps that I taught culinary arts at the collegiate level for the better part of a decade before we opened up. Two of my top students in that time are my left and right hand in the kitchen, one being Lori and the other my Sous-Chef Kyle Wagenblast. It’s always hard for a Chef to communicate their standards to others; it helps to have created that bond in the teacher/student sense before starting this venture. We’ve always maintained that if something isn’t perfect, pitch it and do it again. This drives our accountant crazy, but our customers notice the difference for sure.
We’re lucky to have never lost a key employee to another restaurant; anyone who has left us has gone to a job in the profession they trained for. By treating everyone like family, caring for their well being by being compassionate employers and correcting infractions in a respectful familial way, we’ve maintained a core group of staff right from the beginning. We employ 30 full time staff members for a 15 table restaurant, which is staggering enough, but the fact that 15 of them have been with us for more than 2 years out of the 3 ½ we’ve been open is remarkable.
Even after all the accolades, TV appearances and rabidly devoted fans and customers, we still hold true to the ideals that we started with. We always look for the best in situation at hand, if you don’t have optimism, then you’ll never make it. We never bend on food quality, we’re not here to become rich, we’re here to feed people amazing food. Lastly, we still treat each other like family, a big 30 person family. This whole experience has brought the Popp family much closer together, I don’t know a lot of couples who can work 100 hours together and then go home together while working with their parents / in-laws.
What is one menu item that you have to try?
For me, that’s a really hard decision; our menu is a showcase of what I love to eat. I can tell you, that when I’m hungry, I always fall back on the All American with Ranch Fries. It’s the love child of a Beef Brisket sandwich and a Cheeseburger with fries dressed like a loaded baked potato. For me, it’s the best of both worlds.
Favourite part of about running Memphis Fire Barbeque?
I started cooking with my Mom when I was 3, ate in fine dining rooms from the age of 2 and did my first restaurant concept when I was in grade seven, fast forward 20 years of being a professional chef and culinary arts instructor, and I get to stand in the culmination of all of my hopes and dreams every day. That is a priceless gift that not many get a chance to enjoy, which is never lost on me. I work seven days a week, and have done that for the last 4 years, probably for the next 20 as well, but it’s all worth it. I get to spend every day with the people I love, creating the food that I have dreamed about for the last decade and the fact that people love what I want to serve them, is the icing on the tastiest cake of success ever.