Smoky City Bar-B-Que fires up opportunity in North Memphis

It’s been said that the Smokey City got its name from the active smokestacks of blacksmiths in the area. While industry left the North Memphis neighborhood decades ago, smoke has returned with the opening of a new restaurant, which is a rare site in the area.
It’s been said that the Smokey City got its name from the active smokestacks of blacksmiths in the area.

While industry left the North Memphis neighborhood decades ago, smoke has returned with the opening of a new restaurant, which is a rare site in the area.

When Nathan Strong Sr., 54, opened Smoky City Bar-B-Que in the Smokey City neighborhood in June 2016, he understood the odds may have been stacked against him. But as a businessman and entrepreneur for close to 40 years, he felt prepared for the challenge.

“You’ve got to be consistent,” he said. “I can’t sleep sometimes thinking about what has to be done. It’s hard work and you need to be prepared for it.”

Nathan Strong peeks at some ribs that were prepared in the smoker.

Smoky City Bar-B-Que is at 1023 Jackson Avenue at the corner of Decatur Street. The newly renovated structure, with a beige paint job and black trim, creates a welcomed interruption from the weather-worn and un-kept buildings on the block.

“I’ve been in the building a little over year. Before we renovated the building, it was an eyesore in the community; vagrants hung around,” he said, adding the building had gone through many transitions, including a thrift store, restaurant and used furniture store.

Strong previously owned a nightclub and grill in the area. Over time, his late-night business, which he owned for 22 years, stood alone as fewer eateries remained open.

“From this community (Smokey City), there are limited places with acceptable hours,” Strong said. “There was no place for me to go. We needed a comfortable family-type atmosphere instead of everything closing early in the day or grab the food and go.”

Smoky City Bar-B-Que is on the corner of Jackson Avenue and Decatur Street.

Now seven months after opening, business is good and growing with the help of Strong’s son, Nathan Jr., who runs the day-to-day operations. Also aiding the business is Strong’s daughters, friends and co-owner Kenny Smith. One such friend, Frankie Walter, volunteers and helps with training and mentoring new employees.

“Most of the young people need help in presenting themselves professionally, being on time and learning to communicate with the customers effectively,” Walter said, adding the young people hired who live in the community have remained with the restaurant since it opened.

Walter sees some growth in the community with the addition of Smoky City Bar-B-Que as well as other new businesses such as the Neighborhood Christian Center, Family Dollar and the nearby Crosstown Concourse project.
New storefronts can only bring surface-level improvement, Walter said.

“There’s no program or immediate help as far as jobs,” Walter said. “There are vacant lots, vacant properties. Children don’t have playgrounds and community centers. Our elected officials need to create opportunities in the community and they haven’t done anything.”

Frankie Walter peeks out from the kitchen door at Smoky City Bar-B-Que.

Both Walter and Strong grew up in the Smokey City community. Strong attended Gordon Elementary, Humes Junior High School and graduated from Northside High School.  Walter, 54, moved away, and later returned to live in her childhood home. 

In addition to the restaurant, Strong hires people from the community to do jobs such as paint and help with construction work that is being done on the building. Strong is now expanding the rear of the building for additional storage space with the eventual goal of adding a walk-up window. 

“People just don’t have the knowledge that if one person makes it, then there’s an opportunity for other people to make it. I do my part. I don’t pat myself on the back,” Strong said.  

The business sells more than its centerpiece of barbecue. Veggie burgers, hamburgers, chicken, fish, steak, veggies and homemade desserts round out the menu.

Lil Nate, one of the cooks at Smoky City BBQ, works the grill in the kitchen.

Strong uses word-of-mouth buzz, social media, TV and radio ads and the support of friends to maintain the flow of customers. The business is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“Business is great. We have good customers, great location. It’s clean and we’re friendly and we have great food,” Strong said, adding he gets a lot of repeat customers and referrals.

Smokey City resident Brenda Spraggins, 64, can attest to the varied menu and the quality of the food. She retired from the Internal Revenue Service more than a decade ago and views the restaurant as a plus for the community.

“It means a whole lot to have the restaurant in the community because getting to anything is a problem because everything is so far out,” she said.

Strong and his wife, Paula, and their three children live in Northeast Memphis, but his heart is still a part of the Smokey City community.

Although Strong’s track record has had its highs and lows, his instincts and his sincere drive to better his community keeps him motivated.  

“Any business in the black community is important,” he said. “It gives people a chance to hope. People will support and be grateful.”
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Read more articles by Thelma Balfour.

Thelma Balfour has been a freelance writer for USA Today and Newsweek. She also worked as a reporter for The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis. She is the author of two books, Black Sun Signs: An African American Guide to the Zodiac and Black Love Signs.