The waitress clinked ceramic plates of pork shoulder, smoked turkey, brisket, potato salad, and three smoked jumbo chicken wings on the table.
Alan Katzen, co-owner of One and Only BBQ, and his director of operations, Mike Corder, cast their eyes over the feast, both stopping at the wing plate. One wing looked big enough to fit the “jumbo” billing, but the other two looked like skinny, distant cousins.
How could this happen? Were all the chicken wings in the delivery this small? This wouldn’t do. They would have to double up and give customers two for one to honor the commitment to “jumbo.” A staff member went to check.
She quickly brought out a couple of plump wings and said the rest of them were like these two. The smaller wings were an anomaly. Whew. The feast resumed.
It’s part of the “guests first” culture that One and Only owners believe shows they live up to their name. When it rained recently, Corder stood at the door with four umbrellas. When a car pulled up he rushed out to give everyone an umbrella. Others were escorted back.
When a customer wrote a negative complaint on Yelp about her experience, Katzen contacted her within minutes to apologize and sent a gift card. When a customer called after his drive-through order was incorrect, the restaurant refunded his money and an employee delivered the entire order to the customer’s house.
In six years, Katzen and his partner Joel Banes turned a struggling four-table barbecue restaurant on Kirby Parkway into a three-restaurant, powerhouse chain that runs and ranks with the big hogs of the locally competitive barbecue restaurant industry. With smartphones and social media, reviews are instantaneous — sometimes while a meal is being eaten. Opinions on apps such as Yelp or TripAdvisor can impact the traffic to a restaurant or put them on the map. Katzen constantly watches to see how One and Only ranks, which he says is consistently in the top five with mostly 4.5 star ratings. That puts him squarely into the market share of the reigning barbecue restaurants such as Corky’s, Rendezvous, Bar-B-Q Shop, Germantown Commissary, Central, Payne’s, and Interstate.
“We’re like the fly that keeps landing on his food,” Katzen jokes about Corky’s co-owner Barry Pelts.
But allegiance to other restaurants didn’t stop Katzen from seeing room at the table for One and Only. He says the original owners created a great menu, but they didn’t have a lot of capital. The business struggled with a small staff that seemed to be always overwhelmed.
Katzen and Banes experienced that firsthand as customers. It was a poker game that Katzen polled his friends to find out their favorite barbecue restaurants. All the heavy hitters were named. Katzen and Banes chose One and Only.
“I thought these guys had the best ribs in the city,” Banes said. “But their service was really poor. How could they have something so good and their service be so poor in a barbecue city?”
Katzen remembered that about a year earlier his wife, Millie, told him he should buy One and Only. Katzen laughed. But not this time.
“They weren’t doing very well,” Katzen says. “They were trying to survive. If you want to be a growing successful business, you have to manage that business to thrive.”
He and Banes bought the assets, the most valuable being a handful of recipes handwritten on index cards. It included a sauce with a base of Heinz 57. Katzen says they convinced one of the previous owners, Charles Quarles, to stay on as the restaurant manager and to help decipher the recipes.
“Charles was our ace in the hole,” Katzen says. “He was part of the ownership team that created the recipes. We had no interest in anything but how they prepped, smoked, and prepared their food.” They eventually broke down the ingredients of Heinz 57 and got the mix right so they could have their own ingredients made for their restaurants.
They renovated the 987-square-foot restaurant, created a logo that looks like a tattoo, doubled the number of tables to eight, and added a few items to a menu such as Brunswick stew and green beans. And they added a dessert to the menu: Millie’s Banana Pudding. He talked his wife into using her family recipe.
“I made eight of them a day,” Millie says. “Four in the morning, four at night.” Last year, the chain sold 7,000 bowls of Millie’s Banana Pudding.
Just like the ingredients for the pudding, everything that can be is processed fresh in house. Lettuce and strawberries for the salads are chopped daily. The shoulders smoke for 12 hours a day. The business at 1779 Kirby exploded.
A year later, One and Only opened its second location at 567 Perkins Extended. About a year ago, the owners constructed a freestanding building at 163 Timber Creek in Cordova. A few months ago, Costco began carrying One and Only gift cards.
Katzen says in addition to a menu that stretches well beyond pulled pork, the success can also be attributed to the “guests first” philosophy that he and the managers created six years ago.
“Our guests pay our bills,” he says. “They are why we do our jobs. Everything is about them.”
It’s something he learned in a lifetime in the restaurant industry.
A native Memphian, Katzen, 65, got his first job at age 14 as a dishwasher for Cafe St. Clair on Old Summer Avenue. He worked at Steak & Ale, where he met Corder. After college, Katzen was recruited to work for a company on the West Coast. He was in charge of opening new restaurants around the country, including Alaska, and getting them operating smoothly.
“I worked in 22 cities in 21 years,” Katzen says. He moved back to Memphis to be closer to his mother who was in her 70s. He spent the next 18 years as the general manager of American Cafe in Germantown, leaving shortly before it closed in 2012.
With that two decades of experience, Katzen also learned the importance of paying employees well (there are 175 of them) and finding ways to make them appreciate their jobs.
One and Only pays managers a high wage, Katzen says. They get two days off a week and work around 47 hours a week. Most restaurant managers work 60 to 70 hours a week and may get one day off, Katzen says. Employees who work 30 hours a week are provided health, dental, and vision insurance.
The company accommodates all requests for time off before the schedule is written. One and Only also provides an app that staff can use if they can’t work their shift. Other staff members can pick it up or swap with them.
“If no one can work it, then I will,” Corder says. “We’ll make it work.”
As for the future, Katzen is pondering opening a restaurant in Southaven eventually. But he doesn’t have plans to ship his barbecue. “As soon as it leaves the heat, it goes straight on to a plate and out to a customer,” Katzen says. “That’s when it’s best.”