John Shearer: Porker’s Barbecue Busy As End On Market Street Nears

Thursday, July 27, 2017 - by John Shearer

Diners began trickling in a little after 10 a.m. Thursday at Porker’s barbecue restaurant at 1251 Market St., and by 11:30, about 15-20 people were standing near the front door waiting for a table.
 
It might have looked like the word was out that someone like the president or a famous actor was dining there, but this restaurant that has indeed served George W. Bush and Samuel L. Jackson was itself the object of all the attention.
 
After nearly 30 years in business, the restaurant recently announced that it is closing its doors for good at the end of the business day on Friday.
As a result, the eatery’s regular and occasional diners were flocking in to enjoy one last meal.
 
“We’ve been coming here for years, sometimes twice a week,” said Mark Whittenburg as he and Brian Smart waited on their food with anticipation. “We’ll miss it when it’s gone.”
 
Like the diner’s offerings of basic-but-mouth-watering barbecue sandwiches and sides enjoyed by customers sitting in plain vintage booths and stools, the reason for the closing was pretty standard, too – economics.
 
“My lease came up and there was a rent hike I couldn’t afford to pay,” said owner Beau Tucker. “The way to make money in restaurants now is to charge $15 or $20 a plate. I don’t have a conscience to charge $20 for a $10 plate of barbecue.”
 
He also said the costs of meat and other food items have gone up along with labor costs, and that has also factored into the decision to close.
 
However, he plans to continue serving his barbecue through catering and through operating the food services at the American Legion Post No. 95 at 3329 Ringgold Road in East Ridge, he added.
 
“Their kitchen is about 2½ times the size of my kitchen and a lot nicer,” he said.
 
Besides catering, including preparing the barbecue for this weekend’s East Brainerd Kiwanis Barbecue, he also has a food trailer.
 
“We are going to start with that and see how that industry is and hopefully buy a few food trucks down the road,” he said.
 
While the reasons for closing were basically economical, the reaction has been quite sentimental, based on the crowds in recent days.
 
The scene has been similar to that at the nearby Mom’s Italian Villa, an even older and equally popular restaurant that closed in November 2015.
 
According to Mr. Tucker, Porker’s was started in 1989 by Clark Cook, whose family operated a barbecue restaurant on Rossville Boulevard.
 
Former McCallie School standout quarterback Lawrence Mills and his wife, Diane, bought him out in 1994 while learning his recipes, and the Mills’ nephew, Mr. Tucker, began helping them then.
 
Mr. Tucker had been a standout football player as well at McCallie before graduating in 1990. He then played some at the Air Force Academy before returning and finishing his degree work at UTC after learning of a cutback in military pilots.
 
He also began learning about bartending at the Big River Grille and the restaurant business at Taco Mac while also helping cook at Porker’s during the day. He bought out a partner at Porker’s in 2003, and then he and his sister bought out the Mills family in 2008.
 
He became the sole owner in 2010.
 
Like the secret to the business’ success since 1989, Mr. Tucker said the trick to cooking barbecue is steadiness.
 
“We put a simple dry rub on it and cook at very low temperature (of about 220-230 degrees) for a long time,” he said.
 
While Porker’s has long been a popular place to enjoy some barbecue and other food while discussing politics, news and pop culture, occasionally the latter came to the restaurant. On Feb. 21, 2007, then-President George W. Bush stopped by to eat at Porker’s after speaking at a health care initiatives forum at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
 
Mr. Tucker said he is not exactly sure how the president ended up there, although he said several people have taken credit for it. He said he was talking on the phone that day to Mr. Mills, who was saying he could not get past the security to get to the restaurant. That is when the Secret Service arrived and asked for the owners.
 
“They pulled my aunt and me outside and said the president would like to eat here and he’ll be here in about 30 minutes,” Mr. Tucker remembered.
 
He recalled that all the customers who were there got to stay and that Mr. Bush was quite friendly to everyone while eating in the side room.
 
He said the actor Mr. Jackson, who was raised in Chattanooga and attended the former Riverside High, is a good friend of musician Dr. Clark White/Deacon Bluz, who has frequented Porker’s.
 
“Sam said he wanted barbecue and Deacon said, ‘I’ve got this place for you,’ ” Mr. Tucker recalled regarding how the Hollywood star ended up there.
 
For nearly 30 years, this restaurant that started when the downtown dining competition consisted of places like the Lovemans Luncheonette or bars like Yesterday’s, the Brass Register and the Pickel Barrel has been the place for countless Chattanoogans, too.
 
For Mr. Tucker, his 23 years there have been quite rewarding due to the several longtime employees, including his daughter, and all the loyal customers.
 
“It’s been just like a little family,” he said. “And the customers, we know what’s going on in their lives. That part I’ll miss.”
 
Customer Brian Smart, who has been coming in since it opened, said he will miss it all, too.
 
“What I’ll miss about it is the good food and the atmosphere,” he said.
 
* * *
To hear owner Beau Tucker discuss Porker’s closing, click here.

To hear Mr. Tucker discuss George W. Bush’s and Samuel L. Jackson’s visits to Porker’s, click here.

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

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