Chicago 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.
Robinson 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 Chicago suburb of Oak Park, becoming an ice cream distributor. For a lark he entered Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko’s 1st Annual Rib Fest and came in No. 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 businessman and master chef recently penned his autobiographical book, The Charlie Robinson Story. An honored member of the Rib Hall of Fame, Robinson’s 200-plus page book is published by Silver Phoenix Entertainment Inc.
Numerous photos are featured, including “Charlie Robinson’s Photo Gallery,” showing the hardscrabble Delta region where Robinson grew up during segregation. Color images of the master chef show him posing with notables and celebrities, from musician Alice Cooper to Gov. Pat Quinn. Humble and warm-hearted to those who know him, Robinson has won scores of honors and awards. In the book, he 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 articles written about his life and business success over the past three decades. There are even mouth-watering recipes for wonderful foods, like barbecued shrimp and barbecued pork shoulder.
Robinson includes a number of his own personal proverbs, bits of wisdom he continues to abide by.
“Success is not an accident; you have to make it happen,” is among those. The Charlie Robinson story is one huge illustration of that very practical precept.
The third of eight children, Robinson was born 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. Robinson’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 or indoor plumbing.
As he was growing up, he dealt with his family’s extreme poverty. His absentee father left when he was five.
“It took me a long time to let go of my childhood anger,” Robinson writes.
Since opening his first restaurant, the affable entrepreneur launched other rib joints, each with a brisk carry-out business. He also introduced a line of Charlie Robinson bottled products, his signature barbecue sauce and hot sauce among them. His products are on store shelves in 37 countries.
The community-minded, self-made man has often enjoyed being the No. 1 vendor at the annual Taste of Chicago. On his car, Robinson 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.
Robinson’s Oak Park eatery serves more than 1,500 pounds of ribs per week, slow-cooked in a specially constructed wood smoker. While he will not divulge his family’s treasured recipe sauce, Robinson does admit to one of his preparation secrets — to rub “special spices” into the meat and refrigerate the ribs overnight before smoking them.
What comes through loud and clear in Robinson’s life story is how he clearly never forgot where he came. He’s also known for his generosity — and for supporting worthy local causes with his time. He likes to hire disadvantaged young people, teaching them how to earn a paycheck and learn the restaurant business. That’s also an example of another Robinson wisdom — “The really great person is the one who makes everyone else feel great.”