When Parker’s Barbecue in Wilson, NC opened in August 1946, a door connected two buildings, providing access to two very different dining experiences in Wilson. To the left, there were oysters, which you could pair with whatever liquor you packed; to the right, barbecue and sweet tea.
“This was the family side,” says Parker’s current co-owner Kevin Lamm, pointing to the original dining room of the barbecue building. As Lamm puts it, the restaurant’s founders — Graham Parker, Ralph Parker, and Henry Parker Brewer — knew they needed to “make it either one way or the other.” So eventually, he says, “They decided to go the family route.”
Sixty-seven years later, it’s a decision that’s worked out well. Each week, Parker’s smokes about 150 whole hogs — which are chopped and seasoned with a vinegar-and-red-pepper sauce — and fries about 8,000 chickens for 20,000 customers, who start coming early in the day. “We have people eat barbecue at 9:00 [a.m.],” says Donald Williams, who co-owns the restaurant with Lamm and another partner, Eric Lippard.
One of the first customers each morning was Ralph Parker, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 89. He generally came in about 10 in the morning to catch up on current events over a cup of coffee in the main dining room, which he helped build using lumber from his father’s farm.
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A barbecue family
For years, Ralph did most of the cooking at Parker’s. But it was his brother, Graham, and a cousin, Henry, who brought barbecue experience to the business, having first worked at Respess Brothers Barbecue in Greenville After a stint in the service, the two decided to go into business for themselves. They secured land in Wilson, which had the benefit of being near Highway 301 — a thoroughfare that runs north to south through the state.
Initially, the Parker’s property boasted the barbecue restaurant, the oyster house, and an inn, where travelers could lodge. At the edge of it all, the founders lived together in a house with their wives, who also pitched in at each place. But the other endeavors gradually fell to the wayside as Parker’s Barbecue found its footing.
Its real boon came in 1954, when Ralston Purina built a plant in Wilson. At the factory’s opening, Parker’s catered for a crowd of 17,000 over the course of just four hours, charging 75 cents per plate. “They paid off all their bills when they got that one check,” Williams says. A photograph of that crowd, which set the business on its way, hangs in Parker’s dining room. Next to it, another photo shows a row of hogs splayed on sticks and smoking over an open pit that was dug to accommodate the event.
Today, the biggest day at Parker’s is Mother’s Day, when about 45 pigs are spread across grills, and 26 chicken fryers capable of cooking four birds apiece are put into action. “They stay full … and sometimes we still get behind,” Lippard says.
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Cooking the ’cue
Unlike the pits Parker’s once boasted, hogs are now prepared over multiple gas cookers in a cinder-block building behind the restaurant. Its tented tin roof is sooty black from years of smoking and is held together with nails welded to a steel frame (wood couldn’t stand the heat).
Parker’s made its shift from wood coals to gas in the 1950s, because the latter takes less effort to regulate. “Ralph said it didn’t take him long to figure out about gas,” Williams explains. But although methods of cooking have changed, the food has remained relatively the same since Parker’s inception. When in season, oysters — battered or stewed — still find a place on the menu. (But you can’t bring liquor to swill with them these days.) Only hush puppies, fish, and string beans have been added to the menu.
Such consistency abounds at Parker’s, especially when it comes to its workers, who serve food wearing 1950s-style paper hats. “We still have three or four people who have been here 40-plus years,” Lamm says. One of those is June Brunson, who began as a cook and now assists with take-out orders. Standing by a kitchen window, Brunson ticks off his time at the restaurant: “62 years, five months, and 24 days.”
The barbecue is soaked in a vinegar-and-red-pepper sauce. photograph by Geoff Wood
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The current owners also hold tenure. Williams got his start in 1963, working his way up from waiter to a post at the take-out window before mastering recipes at Ralph’s side. As Williams recalls, “After I cooked for a few years, I looked at Ralph and said, ‘I’m your number one chef. You’re number two.’ ” Ralph might agree with that today. He recently confided in Williams, “You know, the barbecue is better than it’s ever been.”
In 1987, after Henry passed away and the Parker brothers retired, Williams became an owner with his colleague, Bobby Woodard. Following Woodard’s death, Williams brought on two others to assist him. Lippard has now been part of Parker’s for nearly 20 years. And Lamm, who started at the restaurant washing dishes and brewing tea when he was 14, isn’t far behind. Of his work, Lamm says, “You get here, it gets in you, and you stay right here. The next thing you know, you’ve got some years in.”
Customers do, too. Richard Ward, who turned 100 in April, still drives to Parker’s for lunch most days, as he’s done since the beginning. “He says he was here the first day it opened,” Lamm says.
Barbecue is apparently good for a long, thriving business, as well as for a long, happy life. Williams feels certain of it. As a local doctor once told him, “… there’s not a thing in the world wrong with eating barbecue as long as you eat a lot of foliage.” Basically, order two helpings of slaw.
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.