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5 Star Story: Tops Bar-B-Q celebrates 70 years in the barbecue capital of the world

Published: Mar. 29, 2022 at 11:13 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis considers itself the barbecue capital of the world. And while there are dozens of places in town to get some of the best barbecue ever, few restaurants have been in business as long as the subject of this 5 Star Story: Tops Bar-B-Q, which has a smokin’ hot 70-year story.

For Jason McCord, the pitmaster and general manager at the Southaven location, barbecue is the heart and soul and a true artform.

“If you’re gonna do it, you gotta take pride in the food and it becomes a labor of love and the satisfaction is here,” he explained.

It’s also family business for McCord whose grandfather George “Monty” Montague was the face of the company for decades.

“He ran this company for 45 years and had quite a bit to do with the growth and success of it over the a years,” said McCord, who added that his mentor/grandfather taught him as a child how to run a restaurant.

“I was in stores opening pits by the time I could grab the handle,” he recalled.

McCord said his grandfather also taught him to cook with love and charcoal -- low and slow -- the Tops way.

As McCord described, “Slow smoke ‘em over an open pit. We use the charcoals and fresh green hickory wood.”

He added that it’s not something you rush.

“These’ll cook 10 to 12 hours,” he said of the large shoulders on the pit. “You know, absorbing all that smoke and just getting infused with flavor,” he said.

Tops Bar-B-Q was the brainchild of the late J.W. Lawson who, according to McCord, started cooking barbecue in a small restaurant in downtown Memphis. The smoky grilled meat was such a hit that McCord said Lawson decided to open up his first Tops Bar-B-Q restaurant on Macon Road back in 1952.

“From Mr. Lawson he partnered up Mr. Messick, George Messick came in the business, eventually he bought Lawson out, then in 1972, my grandfather, he was already running restaurants around Memphis.”

McCord said that Messick sought out his grandfather and hired him to run the operation for him.

These days, Tops is owned by an investment group with local leadership that CEO Randy Hough said has no plans to change any recipes from the past.

“And why would you? 70 years? Don’t touch a thing,” Hough said.

“But one thing that we have to do is, we have to continue to change and meet the needs of the evolving guest,” he added.

And that’s what Tops’ vice president Hunter Brown says the company is doing.

“Recently we’ve enhanced our online ordering program. We now have curbside delivery that’s being... out as we speak,” said Brown.

Tops also now has online prepaid “grab and go” pick-up. Company executives say they’ve spent the past sic months turning the 70-year-old company into a 21st century innovator of customer service.

There are currently 16 Tops locations throughout the Mid-South with plans for more.

According to Hough, “So, if your community doesn’t have us today, be on the lookout we could be there real soon.”

The company is also pushing for more community engagement opportunities, which the director of marketing and catering said really kicked in during the height of the pandemic when they fed the men and staff at the Memphis Union Mission, doctors and nurses at various hospitals, as well as grocery store employees.

“So, getting to go in and set it up for the Kroger employees ‘cause they had just been working around the clock so hard,” said Darnel Alexander.

The key to seven decades of success, according to company execs, is Tops’ loyal customers -- a fourth generation of them -- and their team members, many of whom have also been with the company for years keeping and teaching the old ways.

“And those folks that have come before us and have left that path on ‘here’s how you do it,’ as long as we continue to train that model be able to do what we’ve done,” Hough explained.

For McCord, it’s just carrying on the tradition taught to him by his grandfather and, as he put it, “Teach people how to barbeque the old way, you know.”

Tops also has what burger connoisseurs consider to be among the best the Mid-South has to offer. The company says they get their meat fresh every day from Charlie’s Meat Market. And if you’re wondering why it’s called Tops Bar-B-Q… they say it’s because they’re the TOPS in Memphis.

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