For almost 70 years, Memphis's famed Four Way Grill has nourished both stomach and soul.
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Over the decades and up through the early 1990s, when Irene Cleaves fell ill and spent the remainder of her years in a nursing home until her death in March 1998, she was something of a celebrity in Memphis and beyond. Almost every Memphian who listened to the radio in the 1980s remembers her King Cotton Meats commercials, in which she coined the phrase “rightly seasoned,” which was later picked up and used by basketball star Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway in subsequent ad campaigns for the company. In 1985, she received the Preservation of Black Heritage Award from the Reynolds Metals Company of Richmond, Virginia, a prize that was covered by publications from The Commercial Appeal to Jet magazine to the NAACP’s official publication, The Crisis magazine. She was 76 at the time and for the most part had stopped cooking but daily supervised her staff of 22 cooks and servers.
As Cleaves’ health declined and family members tried to maintain The Four Way without her expertise in the restaurant business, it fell on hard times and the Tennessee Department of Revenue closed it in 1996 due to nonpayment of taxes. So special was the landmark restaurant that then Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton attempted an emergency move to save it by proposing a resolution to the city council, asking them to give $20,000 from an inner-city projects fund to the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, which would in turn loan it to The Four Way as a grant that would pay the taxes and that The Four Way would pay back.
“Let me tell you why I did that,” he says today, although he can’t recall all of the details of the deal. “I admit I had a bias at the time. First of all, it was a landmark that for decades served quality soul food. Every dignitary in the U.S. or the world, we took them to The Four Way when they visited Memphis to feed them excellent Southern cuisine. Also, I went to LeMoyne-Owen College and played basketball. And evidently they had a contract with The Four Way and we ate our meals there — all the best meals I ever had other than what my grandmother cooked. So yes, I was biased. But if you look at my background you’ll see I’ve never been timid about stepping up and making a leadership decision if I believed in it.”
That deal never happened and eventually someone bought The Four Way and reopened it in the late 1990s but it stayed open for only a brief time. And then a funny thing happened to Willie Earl Bates at his Metropolitan Baptist Church in 2001. His minister told him that The Four Way was going to be auctioned off. Bates, also a real estate developer, and a business partner, Tyrone Burroughs, bought it and some adjacent property on the courthouse steps the next day. They would be partners in the real estate but Bates and his family would be the sole owners of the restaurant.
“I had no experience in the restaurant business,” Bates says, “but I had been having some secret thoughts, some secret love, about The Four Way and I knew I could take what I’d learned from my business degree from Tennessee State University and my experience in business management throughout my career, and apply that to returning the tradition of Mrs. Cleaves’ delicious food.”
Bates and Associates put on their hardhats and went about gutting, remodeling, and expanding the restaurant. Bates turned the old pool hall space into restaurant space, and demolished the adjacent beauty salon and shoe repair shop, both of which had been closed for some time, making way for a fenced-in patio/garden area dedicated to Bates’ mother, the late Magnolia Gossett Bates. He also added an upstairs dining room, which can be reserved for special groups lunches, meetings, and other occasions. Today, the old shoe-stitching machine from the shoe shop sits like a sculpture in front of the restaurant and on the patio sits an old, rusted red wagon, the one Bates used as a youth to deliver groceries in the neighborhood and later on a Commercial Appeal newspaper delivery route that took him by the old Four Way every morning around 4:30.
Bates also expanded the restaurant’s tiny galley kitchen into a larger kitchen where the private dining room used to be located. Asked about losing the famed room with the doorbell, the astute businessman pauses and replies, “New day. In 2001, things had changed and the community was different. It was obvious that in order to attract and to accommodate and provide conveniences and satisfy a larger clientele we had to have an expanded facility and make it more accessible. We wanted to have much more space to cook away from the center of the restaurant and made it easier to bring in supplies and produce. It was just a business decision.”
Bates reopened The Four Way to great fanfare in October 2002, but one thing he didn’t renovate was the tradition of serving fine, fresh soul food in the tradition of Irene Cleaves. He created much of the menu and recipes based on her original recipes and invited “tasters” — former cooks who worked for Cleaves and customers who were her regulars — to help get things just right. Bates goes out of his way to make sure everything is as fresh as possible, relying on various regional sources for vegetables such as turnip greens and yams. And because of a challenge several years ago to cook a diabetic-friendly meal low on fat, Bates now serves all of his vegetables without meat in them.
Asked how he does that and still maintains the delicious flavor, Bates explains, “We check and re-check the outcome and we do that over time and once the flavor is to our satisfaction we record the recipe. We make adjustments as needed; it’s just a part of doing good business — testing the consistency of the guidelines and making sure everyone is following them carefully. It’s not unusual for me to go back there and sample the food as it is cooking and make sure it’s being cooked correctly, that it’s ‘rightly seasoned,’ as Mrs. Cleaves used to say.”
Bates’ sister, Barbara Payne, a beautiful woman in her 70s, is the cashier Tuesday through Friday and adds to the welcoming atmosphere much the way Mrs. Cleaves used to do when greeting and checking on guests. She also keeps volumes of guest books for the customers from all over the world to sign. There are entries from Italy, Sweden, Brazil, England, India, and just about every other corner of the earth.
And the restaurant continues to draw regular folks and celebrities alike. Just like in 1985 when Mrs. Cleaves and Dot Cooper had to keep it very secret when the late R&B/soul singer Teddy Pendergrass and his entourage ate in the back dining room, Bates had to keep a recent visit hush-hush. Last October, megastar recording artist and actor Drake and his crew pulled up in six or seven matching black SUVs for lunch after filming a music video in Memphis.
While Bates does appreciate the celebrity visits and visits from diners from faraway places, he isn’t star-crazed about it. When asked about his special clientele, he says, “I had a mother and daughter from Oklahoma in here not too long ago and they had come here from St. Jude. They had done research and found out about the restaurant and the little girl wanted to come eat here. That was so touching, so satisfying to know that we were able to touch a child and make her happy during a time like that.”
Bates is also excited about and dedicated to The Four Way being such an active community partner, citing relationships with LeMoyne-Owen College, University of Memphis, Rhodes College, Habitat for Humanity, FedEx, the Soulsville Foundation, Knowledge Quest, and others. Looking at retirement someday down the road and concentrating constantly on the future of his restaurant, he says he hopes these relationships help ensure that the Four Way is around for decades to come.
And just as former Mayor Willie Herenton had great admiration for The Four Way, current Mayor A C Wharton also sees it as an important asset to the city.
“The Four Way has always been and continues to be a gathering place for community leaders,” Wharton says. “It may seem a bit quirky, but it was a status symbol to enter The Four Way through the back door and dine in the back room. Principals, doctors, lawyers, and accomplished entertainers, and occasionally, a skinny, hungry black Ole Miss Law student like me could often be found in the ‘back room’ being served by Miss Dot. The Four Way thrives today thanks to the talent and hard work of the new owners and staff and the love of its customers.”
As our conversation comes to an end, Bertha glides through the restaurant taking care of last-minute orders and getting ready to close up shop and Willie Earl Bates is ready to make his final rounds and do the same. Just as I prepare to leave, the music coming from the restaurant’s radio perched in a windowsill catches my attention. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the song beginning to play: Mikki Howard’s 1989 R&B hit “Love Under New Management.” It’s just another fitting taste of magic here at The Four Way.
Tim Sampson is the founding editor of The Memphis Flyer, former editor of Memphis magazine, and currently serves as the communications director for the Soulsville Foundation.