Ask Westy’s owner Jake Schorr how he wound up in the restaurant business and he’ll tell you.
“I got tricked.”
His tone is decidedly no-nonsense, but his quick grin gives him away. He loves this accidental career.
It began in the 1970s after Schorr served in the U.S. Navy and ran a successful stereo and commercial sound business. Schorr’s friend Charlie Sevier asked for some advice on how to boost his faltering Downtown restaurant, but without any restaurant experience Schorr didn’t feel qualified to dish out advice. So, Schorr spent six months working every position before the pair overhauled the eatery into the successful Jefferson Square.
Jefferson Square was located at 79 Jefferson Avenue, previously the location of the very first Piggly-Wiggle self-service grocery. Unfortunately, the restaurant and its landmark building was lost to a devastating fire in 1983, but Schorr was hooked on the restaurant business.
The homey interior of Westy's. (Brandon Dahlberg)
The duo relocated to the corner of North Main Street and Jackson Avenue and named the new restaurant The North End. Twenty years later, it would morph into Westy’s, but that first name was important. It was a strategic move to remind people that there was, in fact, a north end of Downtown.
“I was familiar with The Pinch, there was lots of space here and nothing going on,” said Schorr.
Suburban flight and political neglect beginning in the 1950s left the area largely abandoned, but Schorr has a long and nostalgic relationship with Downtown.
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Schorr's great-grandfather founded the Tennessee Brewing Company in 1885. It closed in 1954 when Schorr was 12 years old, but his childhood spent Downtown at the brewery ensured his love affair with the area. (The building is now undergoing a major renovation of its own, from brewery to apartment community.)
The North End also wasn’t Schorr’s first business in The Pinch District. In 1979 he launched a carriage company in the old city jail at Front Street and Interstate-240. It’s since relocated to North Second Street and expanded from three carriages to 15.
In 2003, Schorr sold The North End to focus on the carriage company, but when poor management by the new owners threatened to tank the business, he bought it back. He and new partner, Dave Harsh, rebranded the restaurant Westy’s, a nod to Harsh’s brother.
Jake Schorr, the owner of Westy's, poses for a portrait outside the front entrance. (Brandon Dahlberg)
Today Westy’s is a Downtown institution. Lunchtime on any given day is packed with a cross-section of the city. There are devoted regulars, curious newcomers, and a smattering of tourists. As the night progresses, the crowd gets younger and more touristy, but the staff still work to make sure everyone feels welcome.
“Westy’s cares about what we do,” said Schorr.
That means quality ingredients, an extensive menu with something for everyone, and listening to customer feedback.
“If a customer complains, I thank them [for the opportunity to improve],” said Schorr.
Many of the employees have been with the company nearly as long as Schorr has, an oddity in the food service industry.
Paul States just celebrated his 29th anniversary preparing Westy’s world-famous dishes. His favorite thing to make is the Alfredo sauce because it takes the most time and care. It’s his opportunity to show customers his skill and his appreciation for their business.
For regular Mary Ward, the care shows. She loves the pasta, but her go-to menu item is the No. 4 tamale plate, hold the onions.
“They are awesome,” she gushed. The perfect blend of tamale, chili, and gooey cheese.
Mary, who works with the Promise Development Corp. community and housing development agency in neighboring Uptown, appreciates the kind and attentive staff and unique atmosphere.
There’s also the fudge pie. Schorr estimates they’ve sold 900,000 servings of the silk pie-brownie combo since 1983.
And thought the modest Schorr won’t mention it, his staff will — Westy’s does a lot to give back to the community it loves so dearly.
Its close proximity to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital means St. Jude families are frequent customers. The kids always receive VIP treatment, and their doodles decorate the bar.
Schorr’s carriage company also offers free rides to St. Jude families exploring Downtown.
Westy’s hosts a free meal at Thanksgiving and Christmas for the city’s homeless citizens. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., volunteers in two shifts serve a delicious, traditional meal to over 1,000 people. The volunteers come primarily from a partnership with Lindenwood Christian Church and Westy’s own regulars. They also supply local shelters with additional holiday meals.
Schorr hopes the experience is as much psychologically nourishing as it is physically.
“We wait on them … we don’t run them through a line. It’s important they see that someone cares for them,” he said.
States and Schorr and the rest of the team have seen a lot of changes in The Pinch that have had serious psychological impacts on the residents, as much as financial changes. They’re hoping renewed development efforts will be a change for the better.
The North End was operating before the Pyramid was constructed and saw a huge financial gain from the building's years as the city’s premier venue for sports, concerts, and cultural exhibits.
The loss of the Pyramid in 2004 dealt a big blow, but the trolleys closure in 2013 was truly devastating.
Customers enjoy an afternoon meal inside Westy's. (Brandon Dahlberg)
“Tourists will go on a trolley, as opposed to a bus that they don’t know where it goes,” said Schorr. It feels safer, more sure. It’s more than transportation, it’s an experience.
With no major anchor to draw people in and no way to easily get around, Memphians and tourists once again forgot about The Pinch.
Schorr estimates Westy’s lost $400,000 in sales in the four years the trolleys were offline. It cost them two staff positions almost immediately. Multiply that effect to all businesses across The Pinch, and it quickly adds up to millions in lost revenue.
Schorr is glad to see the Pyramid occupied again, but The Bass Pro Shop at the Pyramid is only returning a portion of Westy’s loss. It’s the trolley Schorr is most excited to see return to Main Street.
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The system relaunched April 30, but Schorr is anxious for more trolley cars and the next phase of route restoration, the Riverside Loop.
In addition to the trolleys, a new plan for infrastructure improvements including a walking bridge from the Bass Pro Shop to Front Street, and lighting under the Front Street overpass will hopefully improve foot travel to the north end.
Westy’s is also anticipating the upcoming St. Jude expansion and the added families, employees, and supporting businesses it will bring. All that bustle means an added sense of safety and vibrancy.
Westy’s itself is considering an expansion into Midtown, with a new carry out and delivery location, but Schorr has no plans to leave The Pinch.
In fact, he’s purchased the synagogue behind Westy’s for a bold new venue.
The interior of the Anshei Mischne Synagogue, which is adjacent to Westy's. Scholl bought the building three years ago. (Brandon Dahlberg)
The modest brick building at 112 Jackson Avenue included a small meeting space on the second floor and a grocery store below. The Jewish Orthodox temple folded in 1941.
According to Schorr, the building was a garage band venue called The Roaring ‘60s from roughly 1965 to 1975. In the 1970s and early 1980s, it became The Rainbow Room, a gay bar owned by a man named Peaches. After its closure, Peaches leased the building to Schorr for storage space until Schorr was able to purchase it outright.
Schorr then worked with architects at S. Berry Jones for a renovation plan that includes a restaurant, music venue, outdoor space, and a gallery dedicated to the history of The Pinch, in particular the Jewish community. The menu would be an upscale version of Westy’s featuring elegant steaks and perhaps lobster.
With a building and a plan, all that’s left are investors.
“Want to buy a restaurant?,” Schorr joked.
In the meantime, the Westy’s team will continue to work in and for The Pinch, serving their signature dishes with their signature care and quite literally feeding the area’s new (and hopefully longterm) growth.
Mary Ward’s advice to anyone who’s never been is to try the tamale’s, but don’t take her word.
“Just come in and experience it, or you’re missing out,” she said, sitting her napkin down on her now empty plate.