Honoring Desiree Robinson, a Memphis Barbecue Legend
It’s a much-deserved honor, and Robinson’s path to barbecue fame took a bit of a circuitous route. Born in 1937 in Lexington, Mississippi, she moved to Memphis at the age of five. She met her future husband, Raymond Robinson, when they were students at Manassas High School, and they got married after he finished a stint overseas in the Air Force.
The Robinsons first got into the barbecue business not in Memphis but way out west in Denver, Colorado, where Raymond took a job with Martin Marietta in the late 1950s. They quickly discovered there were no good barbecue restaurants in town, so Raymond started cooking his own on a backyard barrel smoker. At their friends’ urging he launched a restaurant called Ray’s Barbecue as a side business.
Within a few years, though, the Robinsons were drawn back home to Memphis. Raymond worked for a time for the Illinois Central Railroad and then a popcorn manufacturer, but still cooked barbecue at home and soon was itching to open a restaurant again. By chance he came across a fully-equipped business that had recently shuttered at 754 North Parkway, complete with a feature rarely seen in Memphis: a glass-walled, Chicago-style aquarium barbecue pit. The Cozy Corner opened for business in August 1977, the same month Elvis died.
For the restaurant’s first quarter century, Desiree Robinson’s contributions were primarily in the background, providing the financial support for the family. As she recently told Alex Coleman of WREG News, when they were discussing launching the business, her husband said, “one of us will run the restaurant and the other one will need to get a job. Which one do you want to do? And I said, I’ll get a job’.”
She went to work for South Central Bell (now AT&T) while Raymond and their two children, Ray Robinson Jr. and Val Bradley, got the restaurant up and running. Without spending a single dollar for advertising, they built by slow, steady word-of-mouth a reputation as one of the city’s top barbecue spots.
Then in February 2001, Raymond Robinson died suddenly from a heart attack. Val and Ray, Jr., wanted to keep the business going, and one day Desiree Robinson decided to go down to the restaurant to offer support.
“I sat around a day or two,” she told interviewer Rien Fertel of the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2008, “and [before] I knew anything I was coming every day, all day, loving every minute of it . . . And I told my daughter I will never ever again retire. She’s taking me out of here on stretchers ‘cause I love it.”
Robinson quickly became the public face of Cozy Corner, chatting up customers in the dining room and making sure everything was done up to her late husband’s standards. But she found she had a knack for cooking, too, and for the first few years was often seen tending the big aquarium pit behind the front counter of the restaurant.
Desiree Robinson turned 83 in May, and day to day operations are now handled by her daughter and grandson Bobby Bradley, but she remains the public embodiment of what is now a Memphis institution.
The Cozy Corner moved to temporary digs in 2015 after an electrical fire severely damaged the old building, but the Robinson family bounced back from that near catastrophe, too. When the original location reopened in October 2016, the exterior, with its turquoise metal awning and battered sign, looked exactly the same. The interior, though, has been overhauled, almost doubling the seating and adding bright new digital menu boards over the counter.
Thanks to stricter fire codes, the original aquarium cooker and a newer model are now housed in an outbuilding, but the barbecue itself hasn’t changed a bit. It’s classic Memphis-style cue, though with a few unique Cozy Corner touches.
The smoked pork is sliced, not chopped, and it’s piled on a long hoagie-style roll. Nowhere else will you find smoked Cornish game hen, and Cozy Corner’s bologna sandwich—a smoky slab seared brown on the pit and mounded with yellow-tinged slaw— is hands down the best in town. For me, though, the splendid ribs, pleasantly firm and bursting with intense smoky flavor, are the top draw.
For almost two decades, Desiree Robinson has been the public face of Cozy Corner, but her barbecue legacy goes much deeper. From supporting her family in the early days to immersing herself in the business after her husband’s death, she ensured that a Memphis barbecue icon would thrive well into the 21st century.
Under Robinson’s watch, Cozy Corner made the jump from a neighborhood favorite to a nationally-known barbecue destination, but it hasn’t lost its original quirks and character. She ensured it became a multi-generational business, too, and her grandchildren and then great-grandchildren literally grew up in the restaurant, each starting off cleaning tables at the age of nine and working up to running the register and preparing orders.
Robinson joins two other notable barbecue figures in this year’s class of inductees: Aaron Franklin, the celebrated pitmaster Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, and Joe Don Davidson, founder of the Oklahoma Joe’s line of smokers as well as the Oklahoma Joe Bar-B-Cue restaurants. All three are Southern barbecue legends and welcome additions to the BBQ Hall of Fame.