Sunday, November 20, 2011

High-Volume Barbecue Logistics Experts - Tom's

It’s fitting that a large portion of the huge customer base for Tom's Bar-B-Q works in logistics since the restaurant’s workers have to be experts in the field themselves to handle the crushing volume of their lunch business. Tom’s is at the corner of Getwell and Raines, in the Oakhaven section of Memphis. Memphis is a major distribution hub for the entire United States and that corner, directly in between the airport and the giant railroad switchyard at Lamar and Shelby Drive, sits in the heart of that distribution network. Along with the railroads and the sprawling Fed Ex and UPS hubs at the airport, the restaurant is also surrounded by massive commercial truck lines, warehouses and manufacturing plants.

When you have that much industry piled into one place you end up with an army of hungry workers at lunchtime and on any given day a huge portion of them stop by Tom’s. The restaurant takes its mission of getting people back to work on time with plenty of good food in their bellies seriously. 

When you walk through the front door of Tom’s you enter what looks like an enclosed patio. Then you go through another door to what looks like yet another enclosed patio. Obviously the place has been through several expansions to manage the flood of customers. If you go during lunchtime on a weekday, once you reach the heart of the building you will encounter a staggeringly long line snaking towards an order counter and then on to another counter with a cash register where people pick up their food.

The staff keeps the surging mass of humanity moving with a speed and efficiency that is amazing to watch. The total wait from taking your place at the back of the line to ordering to picking up your food is only a few minutes. Behind the counters you can see the well-rehearsed dance of organized near-chaos that keeps everything flowing.

My order of dry ribs with sauce on the side came in a big styrofoam clamshell that was speared shut with a toothpick to keep the overflowing pile of food inside it. The ribs definitely weren’t the best I’ve tried. The were fairly tender and had an okay flavor but they also had plenty of unrendered fat attached to them. The sauce tasted like the examples you can find at an average supermarket and the beans seemed to be undoctored, canned baked beans. Plenty of barbecue restaurants use canned beans but most add some pulled pork, barbecue sauce and other seasonings to step them up a notch. The realities of dealing with a teeming lunch business like Tom’s has means it would be totally impossible to make everything from scratch and worry about perfection. The roughly chopped cole slaw was really good and I’ve heard the rib tips are a specialty there so I’ll have to try them on a future visit. The portions were generous on everything I saw people eating during my trip and my meal was only $10.99. So while the ribs weren’t amazing it is obvious that the people at Tom’s know their niche in the local barbecue world and are making sure that they remain a reliable choice for hungry area workers.

[UPDATE: During return visits to Tom's I've discovered that I ordered completely wrong on my first visit. I ordered the spare ribs. The restaurant does a much better job with babybacks, and the flavorful rib tips are a signature item coated with Mediterranean seasoning that are unlike any other rib tips in Memphis. the place also make great barbecue bologna, which is calls "Tennessee round steak." The sauce I complained about was the mild. Tom's also offers a sweet and spicy jalapeno sauce that is outstanding and a habanero sauce if you want to get even hotter than that.]

Tom's Barbecue & Deli on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. I think Tom's is GREAT and definitely a top 5 location for BBQ in Memphis. They do the best integration of BBQ and Greek seasonings I've experienced. I agree that the ribs are a little crude, but the pulled pork is delicious. I thought that the ribs were pretty good too, but not top notch. The fact that this is a full service deli with the world to pick from makes the speed with which you get your meal remarkable. There is a limited amount of room to eat-in and it is beyond "no frills", but this is some seriously good food.