OPINION | REX NELSON: Rendezvous in the Rock

I'm doing one of my favorite things: eating ribs from the Rendezvous along with smoked sausage and cheese. I'm not in downtown Memphis.

Instead, I'm in the Red & Blue events center, which is just down the street from the state Capitol in downtown Little Rock. I'm about to watch a preview of a 90-minute documentary titled "The 'Vous," which is about the legendary Memphis barbecue joint. The reason this event is being held in Arkansas is because the people behind the documentary are Arkansans.

Leading the charge to raise the money needed to finish the project is Pat O'Brien. Those who have followed Arkansas politics will remember him as a former Pulaski County circuit and county clerk who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2010 as a Democrat.

O'Brien grew up in the restaurant business. His father opened McDonald's #1803 at Jacksonville on Jan. 3, 1973. O'Brien likes to joke that he worked there as a "meat rotation technician." In other words, his dad had him flipping burgers.

Young Pat had an early interest in politics and received both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

O'Brien's father died during those undergraduate years. Pat returned to McDonald's after five years of private law practice as operations director for seven central Arkansas locations.

In 2004, the political bug bit hard, and O'Brien was elected to the first of three two-year terms as Pulaski County clerk. He helped reform a voter system that had been the subject of a grand jury investigation and federal court monitoring.

O'Brien brought needed young blood to the courthouse, launching online real estate and court records. His timing, however, was bad to run for statewide office since 2010 marked the start of the Republican revolution that changed Arkansas from a one-party Democratic state to a one-party GOP bastion.

The loss was a blessing in disguise. O'Brien helped grow a national college textbook retail business, owned a cell-phone repair startup, and wrote a book. In June 2015, he was on a trip to Cuba when Steve Edwards (grocery shoppers in central and east Arkansas know him for his Edwards Food Giant stores) asked O'Brien to consider purchasing the Sonic restaurant Edwards owned in Marianna.

O'Brien got back into the food business and is now a partner in a group that owns 13 Sonic locations in Arkansas and Alabama. Last year, he began taking on business clients, providing mentoring and legal advice. He's a bit of a renaissance man. O'Brien has a blog, travels the world, serves on nonprofit boards and even took up skydiving.

In 2015, soon after buying that first Sonic, O'Brien met Arkansas attorney and filmmaker Jack Lofton at a Christmas party. Lofton had read a cover story in USA Today about the Rendezvous and become fascinated with its rich history. The 12-minute preview we see on this night has appearances from former President Clinton, golfer John Daly and college basketball coach Roy Williams.

"Jack convinced me to help him raise the $300,000 needed to make the documentary," O'Brien says.

With so many streaming services now demanding fresh content, O'Brien has little doubt that the documentary will find an audience.

Rendezvous owner John Vergos drove the food I'm eating from Memphis to Little Rock. When his father Charlie Vergos died in 2010 at age 84, Ryan Poe wrote in the Commercial Appeal: "Charlie Vergos took an old coal chute from the wall of his smoky basement tavern in downtown Memphis and created barbecue history. His now-famous barbecued dry ribs, currently cooked over hardwood, became a staple of his establishment."

The list of visitors to the Rendezvous through the decades includes George W. Bush, Al Gore, Mick Jagger and Justin Timberlake. In 2010, the Rendezvous was designated as one of 50 All-American Icons by the magazine Nation's Restaurant News.

Downtown Memphis fell on hard times following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., but Charlie Vergos refused to relocate to the suburbs and continued to invest in downtown.

Charlie Vergos was a son of Greek immigrants and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. In 1948, he opened a restaurant known as Wimpy's, and his brother-in-law was his business partner. The two men had disagreements on how to operate the business, and Vergos moved into a basement to sell ham sandwiches and beer. He decided that converting the coal chute into a smoker would give the ham a better flavor.

"Vergos--called the 'Michael Jordan of barbecue' by Tony Neely, president of Neely's Bar-B-Que--moved the establishment to its present location, where it became a favored haunt of politicians, business people and guests from the Peabody Hotel," Poe wrote. "Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson discovered the Rendezvous and became one of its best ambassadors, taking his business contacts there."

"One reason my father was so civic-minded was that he was always grateful to the citizens of Memphis who supported the business," John Vergos says.

According to the Rendezvous website: "In the late 1940s, downtown Memphis was the shopping and business hub of the city. During the week, men worked downtown. After work, men would hit the Rendezvous for a snack and a beer while they waited for their wives to pick them up. On weekends, the fellows would drive their wives down for a day of shopping and pass the afternoon drinking at the Rendezvous."

Now, a group of Arkansans is telling the story of this iconic business.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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