Wednesday, June 6, 2012

After the TV Makeover - Return to Pollard's

The first time I tried Pollard's Bar-B-Q was the day the restaurant opened at its current location on Elvis Presley Boulevard. That day, September 26, 2011, was also the day that I created this blog. The week before that I'd made the random decision, while stopping for lunch at work, to attempt to try every barbecue joint in the Memphis area. After several days of posting about my barbecue quest on Facebook I decided to create a blog about it. That way I could go into more detail using food as a jumping-off point to discuss other issues that are important to the city I love.

This is my 128th post since that day and I'm still nowhere close to running out of barbecue and soul food restaurants to try. While I was off sampling barbecue throughout the Mid-south, Pollard's was losing money as it failed to attract enough customers to pay the bills in the crowded and fiercely competitive local barbecue scene. The failing restaurant ended up being featured on the Food Network TV show Restaurant Impossible in an episode that aired last Wednesday. The premise of the show is that celebrity chef Robert Irvine visits restaurants that are on the verge of going under and spends two days and $10,000 trying to turn things around.

When I stopped by on Monday there was still a sign in front of the restaurant announcing its recent TV appearance. If you look down the street to the left you can see a small white billboard on the other side of the road. It's a sign for a Krystal's fast food place. Underneath that is the sign for Marlowe's Ribs, which is so close to Pollard's you can see it from the parking lot. You need a serious plan to open a barbecue joint in a market as saturated as Memphis.



During my first visit to Pollard's the spartan interior didn't bother me. I've eaten plenty of great barbecue at places that will never win any design awards. The ribs didn't blow me away on that visit, but they weren't as terrible as the TV show made them out to be either. The show made them sound extremely tough but on my visit they'd been absolutely falling apart. In fact, in my initial post about the place I voiced my suspicion that the ribs had been boiled before cooking as a shortcut since they were so tender while the meat lacked any actual smoke flavor.

Boiling was never mentioned on the TV show, but a lot of local viewers were shocked when they heard owner Tarrance Pollard say he uses a barbecue technique that only requires his ribs to spend one hour smoking in the pit. That reinforces my suspicion that the ribs I ate had been boiled, since there is no way you can start with completely raw ribs, cook them through in just one hour, and end up with anything other than shoe leather.

Another major criticism the show lobbed at the restaurant was the sauce, which Pollard made by doctoring up a store-bought barbecue sauce. There is nothing inherently wrong with starting with a store-bought base sauce. Plenty of excellent sauces start life as plain old Kraft or Cattleman Jack's barbecue sauce. But most places that doctor store-bought sauces aren't just adding a few additional ingredients like ketchup, vinegar and water (!?!). They are adding a blend of spices and seasonings while smoking and simmering the sauce. I thought the sauce was too sweet on my first visit, but to me the bigger problem was the quantity of it. With great ribs the flavor is infused into the meat itself. A little sauce can add a nice compliment to the flavor profile, but there shouldn't be a river of it trying to create flavor where there isn't any.


On my second visit I once again ordered a rib plate with beans and slaw. The sign said a half-slab of ribs was $13.50, but my total came out to over $16. Apparently they don't offer a rib plate, so you have to add beans and slaw a la carte at $2 each. I immediately noticed two things when my order came out, one positive and one negative. The ribs were still being smothered in sauce. But the beans were obviously real baked beans, meaning Pollard had listened to Irvine's advice that he could save money and improve the quality of his food at the same time by making his beans from scratch. I've been served canned baked beans so many times on my quest that I immediately give extra credit to any restaurant that takes the time to make the real thing. The best thing Pollard's got out of being on Restaurant Impossible was a condensed menu with a focus on making things from scratch.

The slaw was creamier than I prefer but pretty average compared to other places around town. The ribs were tender, but there was still no evidence of smoke in the meat. The pit was going when I pulled up, with smoke pouring out of its chimney. And the smell of wood smoke in the restaurant made my mouth water. But it wasn't getting into the meat. It made me think that the restaurant still hasn't abandoned its infamous one-hour ribs. 

Pork may be "the other white meat," but it should take on a pink color when it absorbs smoke from wood and charcoal. I didn't see or taste it in the ribs at Pollard's.

I asked for spicy sauce on my ribs when I heard I had the option of mild, medium or spicy. The supposedly spicy sauce didn't have any heat to it but it wasn't bad. I still thought it was too sweet, but that was partly because there was so much of it. To make matters worse there are no napkins or paper towels at any of the tables at Pollard's. You get a little stack of napkins with your order but that's it. When you're serving up ribs this sloppy a total lack of napkins at the table is more than a minor annoyance.

Pollard's needed to make some changes but it was obvious watching the episode of Restaurant Impossible that the show's main priority was filling an hour of cable television and getting out of town, not positioning the restaurant for longterm viability. Like all "reality" shows a lot of time was wasted intentionally creating needless tension so the episode could have some drama. Irvine showed up, said "your barbecue sucks," and and then put on a big show of righteous indignation when the owner of the place didn't immediately embrace an outsider's complete dismissal of both his career and his self-identity.

To make matters worse, when Irvine tried to show Pollard the "right way" to season ribs he did it with an Asian-inspired recipe full of ginger and soy sauce. Pollard's is in Whitehaven. To be successful it needs to serve barbecue that people in Whitehaven want to eat, not something that would be seen as an interesting take on barbecue to serve in Atlantic City.

Barely a mile north of Pollard's on Elvis Presley Boulevard there is a barbecue joint called Big Bill that feeds a steady stream of customers. Big Bill doesn't advertise. You can't even find them on Google Maps (if you want to find it look up the Lenny's Sub Shop on Elvis Presley next door). It's a spartan-looking place in the corner of a strip mall. If Pollard is serious about improving his business he needs to visit local places like Big Bill that depend on repeat business from word-of-mouth customers to see what they are doing differently.

Other than locals the main potential source of customers for Pollard's restaurant is tourists visiting Graceland, which is less than two miles up the street. So he should also head a few interstate exits over to Leonard's Pit Barbecue to try some ribs so good they don't need any sauce from the place Elvis himself would rent out when he wanted to treat his friends to some barbecue. Irvine showed Pollard one random recipe for a sauce and rub and told him that was how he should prepare his barbecue. One of the most wonderful things about eating barbecue is that there isn't a single right way to do it. Anyone who makes truly great barbecue has sampled a lot of it with an open mind towards improving their own.



Another annoying area of intentionally created conflict on the TV show was the self-imposed two-day deadline to completely renovate the entire restaurant. Why are you trying to redo the wiring while customers are lining up outside? Because you assume your viewers are easily-distracted imbeciles. I usually avoid the inanity of reality television. But as someone who rebuilds classic cars I would sometimes get sucked into watching segments of the old cable program Overhaulin, where a crew would "steal" a person's project car and completely redo it in one hectic week. The resulting atrocity always featured elaborately garish paint and billet wheels. Meanwhile according to magazine reports, plenty of the cars would barely run since no one had time to tune the hastily installed crate motors thrown into most of them. If one of my project cars had been subjected to that show I would have hunted the so-called "friend" who set me up for it to the ends of the earth to exact my revenge.

The point of Overhaulin wasn't to create a reliable car that reflected the owner's tastes. You don't expect a lot of attention to detail from any project that intentionally uses an unrealistically tight deadline to create the drama of stressed out people thrashing to finish something that just needs to look flashy for a few minutes of television. When I was watching Restaurant Impossible I wondered how durable a lot of the hasty renovations were going to be. There are plenty of reality shows ostensibly created to help the people who appear on them. The missing and askew letters where the Restaurant Impossible crew placed the Pollard's name on one of the restaurant's walls seemed like the perfect symbol for the still-struggling people who are inevitably left behind when the cameras stop rolling and the audience changes channels.

[EDIT TO ADD: during a later follow up visit to sample the pulled pork sandwich all the letters were back up and the place looked clean and tidy. Read about it here.]

Pollard's Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

34 comments:

  1. If the major players in Memphis BBQ are starting with supermarket or restaurant supply store bottled sauce, let's say I'd be very surprised.

    But I have to agree that high temp cooking for an hour isn't really barbecue; it's grilling.

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    1. Most of the major players are using their own bottled sauces that are manufactured for them based on recipes they provide.

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  2. I agree, a good rib can't go from raw to plate in one hour!!!

    Gerald Williams
    Killeen, Texas

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  3. I dont see much feed back on this sight, so I have to question if the blogger is authentic. If so the why not send the restaurant a copy of the blog. It may help them out.

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    1. Question if I'm authentic? What is that even supposed to mean? I've been blogging about Memphis barbecue several times a week for almost a year. This post is linked to the Pollard's Urbanspoon page and is easy to find with Google, so if the Pollards are interested in what people are saying about the restaurant they should come across this pretty quickly.

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    2. No, nothing wrong with using a commercial store shelf sauce and goosing it up- as long as you are cooking it for neighbors and family. No decent self-respecting restaurant should even consider it. But you're right, BBQ ribs need low and slow.
      And I hope Pollards has thrown that microwave in the trash

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  4. I've often had the same thought about these hasty renovations - too much in too short a time. Likewise, barbecue ribs cooked in 65 minutes are better described as grilled. I don't have a smoker, but if I'd spend $15,000 to move one and build a brick xxxthouse around it, I'd put the ribs in for hours not minutes - and barbecue a few other things too. Shame about not finding a way to make the reno more permanent. Re-glue the letters. Show you care.

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  5. C'mon Terrence, don't let the dream die!!! Keep your restaurant nice and listen to your customers!!

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    1. I definitely prefer my ribs served dry but Pollard's only offers them wet.

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    2. I don't like wet either. What's interesting is that the best BBQ in Texas (and in America, according to Bon Apetit, Anthony Bourdain, and various BBQ gurus) come from a collection of joints in/around Austin where dry is the only way. Salt, pepper, time and experience get you the best. BTW, i've tried many central texas dry rubbed BBQ and it does indeed rival anybody! I warn people against discounting texas BBQ simply because some places slather on the sauce.

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  7. This episode replayed tonight and I found you when looking to see if Pollard's is out of business yet. I really enjoyed this entry and want to compliment your blog: well done. (I do wonder if you're authentic, however. No, I have no idea what that means or why that person said it. Odd.)

    I also want to say, though, that allowing those letters to fall and not be rehung is clearly Pollard's lack of gumption. You can hand someone a place that may need to be tweaked a bit and it's their own fault if they sit on their hands and say "woe is me" instead of keeping it up. I agree the show manufactures most of the conflict and rushes the decor work, but some owners run with it and others just let it fall apart. I'm guessing Pollard is a "fall apart" kind of guy.

    Too bad you're not in Nashville. I'd like to hear what you have to say about our restaurants.

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    1. I saw the episode today for the first time. I said to my gal within a few minutes, "I'll betcha this guy doesn't listen, and they're broke again in a few months." Thanks for the review. It just goes to show that when you give stupid people something they don't deserve and didn't earn, its no wonder they waste it.

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  8. I can't believe those letters have fallen (and it looks like others are loose) and they haven't reglued them to the wall. What a lack of pride. As a customer, that would show me that an owner that lazy probably wouldn't try very hard in the kitchen either.

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  9. I watched the show yesterday. The restaurant owner is clueless about cooking anything and shows no signs of creativity. I am about to open my own restaurant in Oklahoma City, specializing in grilled pork spare ribs and unlike you guys in TN, I don't believe in masking the taste of badly cooked food by slathering BBQ sauce on it. I am a plain dry rub technician.

    Frayie

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    1. That definitely isn't what most places in Memphis believe in. Check other entries on this blog and you will see that almost all the ribs I try are served dry.

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  10. I just saw the re-airing of this episode in Chicago. This is an enlightening entry. Thank you!

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  11. Like the others here, I found this while searching to see how Pollard's had done after a rerun of Restaurant Impossible. It was interesting to find a review of the place from before and after their reality TV "makeover."

    A couple things:

    Sure, RI is reality TV, and that means fake drama, 48hr short timeframes, and the crew and hosts leave afterwards, leaving it up to the restaurant owner. However, this show gives the failing restaurants a $10,000 (cash) makeover, plus the labor. That's $10,000 in supplies, plus free professional labor. Would the local chamber of commerce give Pollard's $10,000+ to revamp their failing restaurant? So, sometimes reality TV does help our local communities.

    Pollard's was losing money for 16 years, and they still chose to expand in a tight Memphis bbq market. That was a poor business move. You expand a successful business, not a failing one. Like all the owners featured on RI, the owner/chef/manager of Pollard's refused to change. Their sauce looks like KC Masterpiece w/ allspice, ketchup, lemon juice and... water? And their rub (at least on the show) is seasoned salt, which is celery salt, onion, paprika and garlic. No one who claims to love bbq as much as the owner does would do that. Dry rubs usually have 7, 8 or 12+ spices. I've had good bbq and bad bbq, and the places that do it right serve dry ribs, sauce on the side. Memphis bbq is served wet or dry, but slathering the ribs with sauce is a way to cover a lack of slow smoked flavor. Successful restaurants also make their own rubs and sauce, or like another poster said, have a manufacturer make sauce for them. So, for a legendary bbq city like Memphis, Pollard's wasn't making the effort.

    The worst part, which RI didn't address, was the high-temp "grilling" of their ribs, instead of low-temp smoking. My guess is the producers asked the owner about slow-smoking and he thought it was too expensive or labor intensive, so that was not up for negotiation. If you've had tender ribs there, then you're right - they're boiling them first which didn't happen on the show. Either the boiling was cut for time, or the owner didn't want to be on TV boiling ribs in the capital of bbq - Memphis (sorry, Lexington).

    I'm glad RI cleaned the bacterial / mildew growth in the ice machine, because the owner didn't even know he could open it for cleaning. That could have made someone sick. So, another win for reality TV.

    And frozen side dishes with canned bbq beans? Nope. Frozen vegetables get soggy and lose flavor. Only fries do well when frozen. Canned "bbq" beans are filled with salt, sugar and liquid smoke to cover a lack of real flavor. Robert the host/chef/blowhard was right to get them to switch to buying dry navy beans, soaking them and then cooking them in the smoker with bacon. It was also half the cost.

    The makeover probably wasn't necessary, because bbq lovers would eat a good rack in a dark bathroom as long as they are tender, smoky and tasty. The makeover gives the owners and staff a sense of pride in the restaurant. Your picture is very telling, both about the cheap nature of TV makeovers, and the disinterest of the owner of Pollard's about up-keep on the space. Maybe the letters fell off the wall 15 minutes before you showed up, but they should glue them back up, period.

    So yes, Restaurant Impossible is a quick fix for failing restaurants, and it's fake-ish reality TV. It's up to the owners to keep up with the changes after the show leaves, and that's how it should be. The show isn't responsible for the long-term success of any place - the owners are. What the show does is pump $10,000+ into a failing local business, and give the owner a kick in the pants. I hope Pollard's is successful in the future, but if they want smoky tender ribs, they really should switch to slow, low-temp smoking.

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    1. Agree with you completely about the meat being more important than the decor for a barbecue joint. I've found plenty of rundown-looking places that stay busy while doing this blog. If a place in Memphis has great barbecue it will have loyal customers.

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  12. Hey just seen the episode - I'm in England - your blog looks great = I hope the people at Pollards keep up the higher standards the chef set for them.

    How's their business are they still busy since the show aired on TV?

    I envy you guys in the USA we can't get a decent BBQ anywhere in England and if we can it costs a fortune.

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    1. They are still open. I drove past on Monday. It didn't look crowded when I passed by but it was at an odd time in between lunch and dinner when most restaurants are slow.

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    2. Thank-you for posting this blog. The episode of RI was pretty brutal, but also brutally honest in reference to the beans and sauce (and 1-hour ribs??). I stumbled across this blog because I wanted to know if Pollard's was surviving, and was glad to see they were still in business. I really do hope they are inspired to deliver and succeed in the competitive Memphis BBQ market.

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  13. I have been a faithful customer of Pollard's since their opening on Boeingshire. I know for a fact that Tarrance (Mr. Pollard) does not boil his ribs but slow cooks them for more than an hour. What he said on RI was for ratings only. And yes I have had my ribs wet and dry at Pollard's. The ribs are served your way. If you want light sauce, lotta sauce, or no sauce, it's your choice. Nothing is forced on you. As for those letters, they are fixed. Our blogger did not return to see if they had been. You can't just criticize someone without knowing the whole story. And tell me, why would Mr. Pollard give out his real recipe for making sauce on that show. Remember people a lot of the things that were on the show was done for ratings, not necessarily to help Mr. Pollard look good, but to make Chef Irvine look good. Mr. Pollard is a good and dedicated man who works hard to provide for his family and satisfy his customers. Like you say, he was struggling, so change takes time and money. Something we are all short of these days.

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    1. Honestly, this response seems very much from Mr. Pollard himself.

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    2. Whew... I feel so much better. I couldn't figure out who the biggest idiot was: Pollard for spending 16 years serving boiled ribs and grill, Torria for spending $300k to sell boiled ribs and grill or Robert for trying to spice up their boiled ribs and grill. I'm glad to hear they are smarter and deeper than TV suggests

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    3. Thinking exactly what 'anonymous' is thinking

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  14. is it you mr pollard?

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  15. I thank Restaurant Impossible for helping the Pollards jump start their failing business. I enjoy the show. To the Pollards I would like to say I am not a big BBQ ribs fan, but enjoy them here and there if they're not slathered in sauce. I was more interested in your episode to see what you learned business wise. I hope your restaurant continues to make it and hope you make it more of your mission to find innovative and creative ways to market your business by keeping your customers satisfied. In turn,they will spread the word about your business and draw new customers in, provided you give them a reason to. Also put the extra time in keeping the appearance of your business updated, for instance instead of glueing the letters on, why not stencil them and permanently paint them. At the least people will expect to see that because I was also wondering about that when I read and saw a post that the O and one L was missing after the episode aired. Thanks to another customer comment to a blog stating they were still missing, recently confirmed that they are there. Good luck Pollards, I hope your business last for years to come. Interested in Columbia, SC

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  16. Watch the show again tonite....even if i tbough i had the greats sauce and i was losing money, why not take Ervins help.what was wrong with that owner

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  17. Owning a BBQ restaurant is one the hardest in the business. You can't show up at 10:00 and grab stuff from frig and prep within an hour prior to opening. I show up at 8:00am and go home at 10:00pm. We smoke "fresh" every single night and pull meat off every single morning. No canned goods, pre-made crap, or microwaves. Every single item has serious thought put into it and DOES NOT go on the menu if it's not absolutely perfect. I don't serve leftovers and I don't serve anything I'm not proud of. I serve pork, brisket, chicken and ribs. I also have numerous creative riffs on the menu to appeal to different people (i.e. Korean Bulgogi tacos from our smoked pork, and many other items). I compete professionally and have won over 100 state championships including KCBS team of year, Sam's Club invitational and others. Not bragging but just showing it's the passion that drives someone to choose BBQ and be successful. I've never operated in the red and always turned a huge profit. BUT I put in the hours, take pride in my work, good to my customers and fire anybody who doesn't have a good work ethic. I've surrounded myself with a great staff, good customers and a strong desire to run a business that I'm proud of. ..... Letter's falling off the wall, MY GOD. I couldn't stand that!! It's a direct reflection of the poor work ethic of the owner. And it's LAZY .... just like boiling freaking ribs! nuff said. I'll get off my soapbox now.

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    1. It ain't braggin' if you can back it up...

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  18. You are bragging...but you've earned the right to do so.

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  19. Re Pollard's, the old saying, you can lead a horse to water but.... No disrespect intended but goosing upcommercial store BBQ sauce is fine--if you cook for friends neighbors and family. Not if you take money from customers. And ribs need to go low and slow--for hours, "more than an hour" ain't cutting it and ain't competitive in the market place. And I hope they threw that damn microwave in the dumpster.

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