Mr. Barbecue's slow-cooked success

Charlie Robinson's sauce recipe is secret, but his life is an open book

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By Doug Deuchler

Blogger

Local restaurateur Charlie Robinson learned his 200-year-old barbecue recipe from his grandfather while growing up in the Mississippi Delta. It's been passed down in his family for, he estimates, 14 generations.

Charlie started out chopping and picking cotton as a child. But after graduating from a small Nebraska college where he was one of three African-American students, he settled with his wife and children in Oak Park and became an ice cream distributor. For a lark he entered Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko's 1st Annual Rib Fest and came in #1 out of 400 contestants.

"Mr. Barbecue of '82" then opened the first of his popular restaurants, Robinson's Ribs in Oak Park. The rest is history.

The hard-working business leader and master chef, who is an honored member of the Rib Hall of Fame, has just written a 204-page autobiographical book, The Charlie Robinson Story, published by Silver Phoenix Entertainment Inc. It costs $19.95.

Numerous photos are featured ("Charlie Robinson's Photo Gallery," many showing the hardscrabble Delta region where Robinson grew up during segregation, as well as many color images of the master chef posing with notables and celebrities, from musician Alice Cooper to Gov. Pat Quinn). Humble, warm-hearted Charlie, who has won scores of honors and awards, explains his background and the evolution of his successful business enterprises.

There are glowing endorsements from friends, family members, politicians and clergymen. An anthology section includes many of the fine articles and news features that have saluted and celebrated Charlie and his business success over the past three decades. There are even mouth-watering recipes for wonderful foods, like barbecued shrimp and barbecued pork shoulder.

Charlie includes a number of his own personal proverbs, bits of wisdom he continues to abide by. One of my favorites is: "Success is not an accident; you have to make it happen." The Charlie Robinson story is one huge illustration of this very practical precept.

Robinson was born the third of eight children in 1946 in one of the poorest counties in the Jim Crow South. As a youngster he worked 10 hours a day in the blistering heat of the white-owned cotton fields, from sun-up to sun-down, receiving a wage of 30 cents an hour or $3 a day. It was back-breaking labor but kids routinely stayed out of school until the cotton season was over to help their sharecropper families survive by bringing in that much-needed $15 a week. Charlie's mother cooked, cleaned, and did laundry in white folks' homes. The large family lived in a crowded little "shotgun" house with no running water and no indoor plumbing.

As he was growing up, he dealt with his family's extreme poverty, his absentee father who left when he was five, and the few options he had to pull himself up and make a better life for himself. "It took me a long time to let go of my childhood anger," he admits.

Since opening his first restaurant in Oak Park, the affable entrepreneur launched other rib joints, each with a brisk carry-out business, plus a line of Charlie Robinson bottled products, including his signature barbecue sauce and hot sauce, which are on grocery store shelves in 37 countries.

The community-minded, self-made man has often enjoyed being the Number 1 vendor at the annual Taste of Chicago. On his car, Charlie displays his personalized license plate, issued by the Illinois Secretary of State after he won the Royko Rib Fest in 1982: "RIB 1." He's renewed it proudly ever year since.

In Oak Park alone Robinson serves over 1,500 pounds or ribs per week, slow-cooked in a specially constructed wood smoker. While he will not divulge his family's treasured sauce recipe, Robinson does admit one of his preparation secrets is to rub "special spices" into the meat and refrigerate the ribs overnight before the smoking ritual begins.

What comes through loud and clear in Robinson's life story is how he clearly never forgot from whence he came. He is extremely generous, supporting worthy local organizations and causes with his time, his products, and his money. He likes to hire disadvantaged young people who not only earn a paycheck but also learn the restaurant business in the process. Another great bit of wisdom from Robinson: "The really great person is the one who makes everyone else feel great."

The full title of this volume is "The Charlie Robinson Story: From the Son of a Mississippi Delta Sharecropper to the Top of the Chicago Barbecue Charts." Published by W.P. Norton, the book is an enjoyable, uplifting success story that illustrates the life story of one of our many local legends.

It's available at Robinson's Ribs, 942 Madison St.

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