Don Pelts, who founded the Memphis-based barbecue restaurant Corky’s Ribs and Bar-B-Q and helped increase the popularity of the savory food style with a shipping and supermarket sales business, has died, a relative said Thursday.
Pelts’ son, Barry Pelts, said his father died Wednesday night of a heart attack at age 72.
Pelts opened the first Corky’s in Memphis in 1984, serving ribs and hand-pulled pork cooked over hickory wood and charcoal. According to the company’s website, Corky’s catering business started within a year of the first restaurant’s opening.
The company later expanded, with restaurants opening in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and other cities in Tennessee. It also began to ship ribs, pork, beef, sauce, seasonings and apparel to customers around the country.
Corky’s also ships food to supermarket chains and sells food packages on the QVC shopping network.
The chain’s food and service has received acclaim in several national publications. National Geographic named Corky’s as the best barbecue restaurant in the country earlier this year.
Barry Pelts said his father was a caring and hard-working man who cared deeply about his 280 employees, many of whom have been with Corky’s for more than a decade.
“He had the work ethic of the hardest worker in the world, and the playfulness of a 13-year-old kid,” Barry Pelts said. “All he wanted is for everybody to be happy.”
Barry Pelts said Corky’s was unique when it opened because it not only offered sit-down table-service with servers wearing bow-ties and white shirts, but also had a drive-thru window.
Nick Vergos, co-owner of Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, a renowned barbecue restaurant in downtown Memphis, said he traveled with Pelts to New York to serve barbecue. He said Pelts was a friend who helped spread Memphis-style barbecue all over the world.
“He was just a smart guy that took a simple product like barbecue, something cooked in basically in the most primitive and original way, and along with several other people made it a global, iconic food product,” said Vergos, whose father, Charlie, founded the Rendezvous in 1948.
Don Pelts’ survivors include his wife, Linda, and two children, Barry and Patricia.