By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
It’s the same as it has been for 62 years. For six decades, the sweet aroma of barbeque ribs cooked with hickory wood have seduced numerous celebrities and thousands of residents to a tiny building in Chatham, once the bedrock for middle class Black professionals. To newcomers, it’s Lem’s Bar-B-Que, but for years longtime fans have known it simply as Lem’s.
Carmen S. Lemons and her sisters affectionately calls the business that their father perfected Lem’s Bar-B-Q House. They now lead an enduring neighborhood institution that still blows a lot of smoke out of a former ice cream shop. Despite difficult times and dwindling Black neighborhoods, Lem’s is one of a few Black-owned family businesses that have lasted for generations. Its big reputation for quality food and service has helped keep the institution thriving. The business continues to sizzle thanks to the work ethic of its founders, particularly James B. Lemons, a tough, no-nonsense, old school pit master who pioneered rib tips into a widely popular down-home delicacy that has won the hearts of Blacks and fans of all ages and cultures. The rib tips are still tender while the sauce’s spicy and sweet flavor continues to give Lem’s masterpiece a robust kick.
James died last year after steering Lem’s into a gilded age of prosperity and success. Now, his heirs aims to cook up a new chapter in Lem’s history as they plan to expand the company’s products and brand with franchises and marketing in the digital age. Lem’s enduring popularity has now gained the attention of Hollywood, where one filmmaker is putting the iconic barbeque on the big screen.
As the second generation to head the popular takeout eatery at 311 E. 75th Street, Carmen and her sister, Lynn Walker, aim to return Lem’s to a chain operation by recruiting franchise owners. Shortly before Lem’s opened for business on July 25, the two spoke to the Crusader about their future plans to grow a Black institution.
“We’re always about quality,” Carmen said. “We have a personal relationship with our people and businesses as well.”
“We try to make things work as a family,” Lynn said. “[At many places] everyone wants to be the chief, but there are not enough Indians.”
It’s a flourishing enterprise that was built on rib tips, a product that were being thrown away before the Lemons family crafted a runaway recipe that has kept fans coming back into the Black community again and again, year after year. After four decades in various positions, Walker can be seen taking orders from customers waiting outside. To this day, long lines still form, even on hot days.
Rib tips share a similar history with Soul Food. On plantations, slave owners gave Blacks unused or unwanted parts of animals to eat. For Lem’s, rib tips ironically have become a source of pride and success that’s keeping the neighborhood alive with traffic and appeal after so many businesses have closed in the past decade. Not many barbeque pit masters or entrepreneurs thought that a product that was once shunned would be a hit that would have such an impact on the neighborhood.
Aretha Franklin was known to send her assistant to Lem’s for a batch of pork. Denzel Washington’s wife, Pauletta, took home a shopping bag full of grub from Lem’s. Scottie Pippen, the Dells, the Delfonics and the Whispers have all invaded the eatery for some barbeque. Meat lovers across the country have rated Lem’s high on their list in national polls. Many travel across state lines to chow down on the popular entre that includes juicy hot links and tender, well seasoned rib tips. They cover a bed of french fries soaked in Lem’s legendary barbeque sauce.
The recipe has won wave reviews from local and national food reviewers. In January, Timeout Chicago named the restaurant as one of the best barbeque joints. In 2014, the prominent Zagat organization, which has reviewed restaurants in 70 U.S. cities, said Lem’s could beat anything the Carolinas care to offer, or Georgia, or K.C. And TX isn’t even on the map.”
Izell Dukes, who lives in Wausau, Wisconsin, stops by Lem’s whenever he visits his parents in Chicago. Dukes said he discovered Lem’s four years ago after hanging out at Annie Mae Lounge on 75th street.
“This place is the best. The sauce is so good. I was hooked since the first day I came here,” Dukes said. I have friends in Boston and New York who I bring here when they are in Chicago.”
Patricia Davidson, 52, has patronized Lem’s since the 1980s. She said Lem’s catered a picnic she hosted in 1981.
“We always buy the rib tips,” she said. “It’s (sic) the best.”
Lem’s is the last of two remaining barbeque rib joints in the family business. The first one opened in 1954 at 59th and State Street by brothers Miles and Bruce Lemons. That one closed in 2001. James, who was a seasoned chef and worked at Mama Batt’s restaurant at 22nd and Michigan, established the current location in 1968. The building was formerly a Tastee Freez ice cream parlor that also served milk shakes (the iconic Lem’s marquee still has a cup and a straw).
The brothers from Indianola, Mississippi experimented with their mother Anna’s sweet-tangy sauce by adding their own secret spices. Walker says Lem’s sells about 360 slabs of ribs a week. They also sell countless pieces of rib tips, hot links and barbeque chicken.
Lem’s current leader, Carmen, said the eatery is so popular that it has become a gathering place for many regulars. For that reason, Carmen said her father did not call it a restaurant, but Lem’s Bar-B-Q House. Carmen said after her father died, there was never a doubt about Lem’s future or the eatery’s 15 employees.
“We continued to work because people needed to be employed, “Carmen said. “My dad was 87 when he died. He left us a good business.”
Lem’s reputation soared after rib tips were added to the menu. Rib tips are short meaty ends that are attached to the lower end of spare ribs. While rib tips were not sold by many eateries in the 1950s, today they are sold in many barbeque rib joints across the country. Lem’s is one of a very few institutions that are credited for rib tip’s popularity. In an interview with Southern Foodway Alliance in 2008, James said rib tips were being thrown away. “My brother [said]… I’m going to take that tip, cook it, and see how it do.”
Lem’s cooks its slow-cook ribs with hickory wood in a 4X8 aquarium smoker with plexiglass. The wood gives the meat a rich, smoke taste. Meat lovers often praise the pork for its tenderness and flavor. Then there is the sauce, a sweet vinegary topping that seals that deal.
During his reign as Lem’s leader, James was known as a watchdog to Lem’s quality food and service. Every morning, James would arrive at Lem’s by 9 a.m. He would sit in a chair next to the customer window and routinely taste the sauce.
“He always tested it and made sure it was right,” Carmen said.
During one visit to Lem’s by a Crusader reporter, Darryl Kimbrough, chairman and CEO of Film Life Nation/Pearlboy Filmworks & 87th Street Pictures, met with Carmen to schedule film shoots for an upcoming movie, “Fortunate,” a gritty drama that’s being filmed entirely in Chicago. The movie is expected to be released this November.
As for Lem’s, Carmen is preparing to expand the brand. She recently registered Lem’s to offer franchise opportunities for other business owners. She is also working to market Lem’’ special seasons and sauce to stores and set up a digital site where customers can purchase hot links online. On July 5, Lem’s closed for an entire week. During this time, a new smoker was installed while Carmen and Walker vacationed in Jamaica. The two love to ‘vetravel. Over the years, they’ve visited Shanghai, China and Jerusalem. Every year, Lem’s hold an event called Give Back. Employees are given money to purchase food and items for shelters that feed the homeless and battered women.
In February, Carmen and Walker honored their father by adding a special ribs combo to the menu called the JBL, which are his initials. Carmen’s favorite product is the barbeque wings. Walker loves the rib tips combo, which Carmen says is Lem’s most popular item.
Before she ran Lem’s full-time, Carmen taught for a total of 34 years at Carver High Military High School, Dunbar High School and the now defunct Englewood High School. After she retired in 2007, Carmen rested for a year before working at the restaurant full time. By this time, her father served in a minor role as he aged. Walker, her sister, has worked full-time at the restaurant for 38 years. One hour before Lem’s opened at 1 p.m. Carmen’s nephew, Williams D. Lemons Jr., was grilling a fresh batch of ribs for the day’s order.
Carmen is determined to carry on her father’s legacy and Lem’s reputation as a neighborhood institution.
“Because of the legacy of my uncles and my father, I work hard because of the sacrifices they made. I don’t want the business to fail. I want to be faithful.”