Lawrence Frazier, a.k.a. Rib Man, sits at a card table on the corner of a ramshackle gas station parking lot, facing a line of customers. Behind him, family and friends mill about while a rangy young man in a muscle shirt moves up and down a giant smoking grill, like a piano player. He flips this rack of ribs, moves that one a few inches over, adds another to a pile already five stacks deep. There are at least 50 racks of ribs sitting on the grill's upper shelves, and Frazier's already thinking about what he's going to do with the rest of his Saturday afternoon. They'll be closing soon because he knows that his remaining racks are going to sell out and sell out fast.
Frazier's stand on the corner of King and Mt. Pleasant streets is one of a number of street-corner food outfits, many found in some of Charleston's lower income neighborhoods. While the food trucks at farmers markets and tourist-frequented areas attract hungry clientele with promises of crêpes or handmade pasta, these street meat salesmen are doing a grittier, more intimate kind of business. There aren't any cheery salesgirls in logo-ed ball caps greeting and taking orders from a twee truck window, and no laboriously printed signs listing menu items or prices hang anywhere. A greeting here is often a knowing nod of the chin, and the menu is whatever's on display. Prices are typically given verbally, but that isn't a problem since most of the patrons are repeat customers.
A few years ago, Frazier, who drives a bus during the work week, decided to try his luck at selling the barbecue his friends and family raved about. That first Saturday morning, he started with 30 racks of ribs and sold out so swiftly he decided to keep on trying. He's now up to 80 racks of ribs, and he sells out of them every single weekend. He's constantly moving up and down from his folding chair, boxing up orders and doling out casual handshakes to his familiar customers. He's quiet and reserved, his most rollicking laughter never reaching anything beyond a deep titter. The chuckle becomes a reward, something you're constantly trying to elicit, so that when he turns his light on you it feels as if the sun's come out. Everyone's drawn to his spot — to his quiet pull — and it isn't hard to see why.
Frazier and his employees, a fluctuating group of close friends and family, set up the grill most Saturdays at about 9 a.m., weather permitting. By noon, the ribs are ready and the line has formed. Frazier uses a dry-rub so secret that he'll only confess to salt and pepper, and he has at the ready bottles of a zingy, mustard-based barbecue sauce he makes himself ... again so secret that he only admits to using salt and pepper. He prefers to add the sauce only after the ribs are on the plate so that he can offer something to both the dry-rub fundamentalists and the sauce-loving hedonists. A generous fat-cap tops each lovingly charred rib, so that every bite releases a gluttonous pool of glistening juice. These aren't baby-backs: each slice is a thick, use-all-your-teeth kind of situation, with lots of finger-licking and mouth-wiping involved. If you come away with a clean shirt, you aren't doing it right.
The only things you'll find at the Rib Man's station are ribs and grilled half-chickens — sides, buns, and other meats be damned. "You can get a hotdog anywhere," he says. "You can get a hamburger anywhere. We want to do something that's not just anywhere and do it well."
Those who seek more variety head to Terrill Johnson's grill down the road, at the corner of Rutledge and Grove. Every Saturday, Johnson sets up in the front yard of his friend's house, grilling away. One weekend, he stands in the driving rain, fighting the elements to keep the grill going. Even in that weather, a car pulls over and throws on the hazard lights. A woman dashes through puddles to stand under the blue camping canopy Johnson has erected, half-shouting her order to be heard over the weather.
On another, more forgiving weekend, Johnson stands in the dappled sunlight before his grill. He's flipping hotdogs, burgers, ribs, chicken, pork chops, and sausages. A handmade poster-board sign is taped to the front of a card table that's laden with bottled sauces and spices. It reads "Evelyn's Vision," the name Johnson has chosen for his venture, in honor of his mother. The title is layered with meaning. Johnson is a deeply religious and philosophical man, often spouting aphorisms that belong on bumper stickers. He's also eager to invite people to his church, Greater St. Luke's AME, but he manages to not be annoying about it. He came up rough, or as he calls it, "hard-headed." He was in and out of trouble in his youth, but his mother always wanted him to be a proper man, believing with all her heart that he could become one. He grew up, straightened out, strengthened his faith. Evelyn also has troubles with her sight, and through medical help and what Johnson believes is a miracle from God, her vision has improved. So the business name is two-fold, signifying both his self-made career and his faith in the divine.
Johnson has worked in some of Charleston's most famous restaurants — Hyman's Seafood, 82 Queen, and Poogan's Porch are among a few that dot his resume. After he hit 30, Johnson, now 42, decided to leave the professional restaurant industry, opting instead for various jobs in other fields. He's also been cooking roadside in multiple locations spanning from North Carolina to Florida for the past seven years, though, and now wants to build up his own name. His dream is to own a rib shack, where he wants to employ those most in need of opportunity, like the job-seeking elderly or college students. Working at a business with proper mentoring, Johnson believes, can change lives. He fondly remembers the learning he gleaned long ago from Hyman's owner Eli Hyman, whose unwavering kindness he says gave him a sense of self-importance, compassion, and independence.
As is the case with many kitchen professionals, Johnson sees cooking as a matter of strategy. "Cooking is about timing and planning," he says. He graduated from Trident Tech with degrees in business administration and art, and it shows in the way he considers things. "Being situated on a corner is ideal," Johnson says. "It gives people a 360-degree view of what you're doing. If they can see the food, it's enticing. They know they can trust what they see."
He's also analytical about where and when he sells. He knows that Saturdays are best because it's a leisurely day when no one feels like cooking, and he can track his profits according to the time of month. Near the first, when payday dawns for many in the neighborhood, he knows he needs to stock up. Looking at weather forecasts, timing his output with the busiest times at the laundromat and convenience store across the street, tracking his overhead — all of these and more factor into Johnson's business model.
That sense of timing is apparent in Johnson's food. Like Frazier, he opts for a dry-rub, swearing by flavor blends from several brand-name spice companies. But he starts the day before, marinating his ribs in wine and whatever spices strike his mood. Sauce, he says, can sog the meat before it's sold. He prefers to let the customer put on the sauce so that his meat retains a slightly crispy char. Johnson runs the grill like a short-order cook, adjusting and readjusting things, pouring wine or water from a jar of hickory chips over hot spots in the coals. He chats and takes payment, but his eyes never leave the grill.
Three neighborhood kids come by after ball practice, and Johnson swoops up three hot dogs from his grill, treating each of them to a free lunch. My mother, who I've brought along for a tasting, huddles with me over a paper plate holding the sides that Evelyn and Johnson's sister make for his Saturday business. Tiny field peas striped with bacon swim in a punchy sauce, marrying with the mustard-y zing of homemade potato salad. We are fork-warring over it and spilling it everywhere in the process. Two men stand under the canopy next to us, chatting with Johnson and waiting for a large order. They say they've heard about the place through word of mouth and wanted to come check it out. It takes a beat for me to realize that one of them is Bill Murray, but Johnson takes it in stride. Clearly, Murray doesn't want to be hassled. He tips Johnson generously and promises to return. On the way back to his car, the movie star glances back at my sauce-splattered mother and deadpans, "Next time, wear a bib."
Elsewhere, in North Charleston, Louis Tollerson is fast at work selling fresh seafood. This seller sees more traffic than any of the other street-corner vendors that I've visited. A truck painted with his logo, "Tee's Seafood" (also named for his mother, who started the business), sits next to a steel canopy on the corner of Dorchester Road and Meeting Street, across the street from an occasional fireworks stand. Under the canopy, Tollerson has several coolers full of head-on and jumbo shrimp, plus assorted sizes and types of crabs. There are times when there's nowhere left to park in his modest space, and customers find themselves picking over the grassy, cracking pavement from adjacent lots to get to Tollerson.
Still, they are arriving, always arriving. Tollerson buys his seafood directly from local fisherman, and it's consistently some of the biggest and freshest in the area. I take home pounds of head-on shrimp and bake them in sherry and butter. They are fantastic — tender and briny — and I greedily bite into the shrimp heads to pull out the sweet, funky innards encased within.
It also doesn't hurt that his prices are in check. Depending on size, a pound of shrimp will only set you back $2 to $5, and mixed blue crabs are $6 a dozen. Rusty crabs, the fattened-up version of a blue crab — the name comes from the orange-ing of their bellies as they sit on the ocean floor in super-cushy spots, developing flavor and texture — are $6.99 a dozen. He goes through hundreds of bushels of crabs in a week. Tollerson's making a good living in the seafood business. His four daughters, ranging in age from 20 to 34, have higher educations and advanced employment, and his wife, Pat, is able to stay at home — though she can often be found helping out at the stand.
Twenty-eight years ago, Tollerson and his father opened a now-defunct North Charleston restaurant, Shorty's, but they dedicated the front of the space to Tollerson's mother. She sold fresh seafood from that storefront and quickly became a neighborhood icon. "Everyone came to her, hundreds of people, because she remembered every single one of them, all their names, all their stories. She was a great sales lady, and also just a great lady," he says.
She evidently taught Tollerson how to be a great salesman. He knows how to take care of people, and he appreciates them. "I've met thousands and thousands of beautiful people," says Tollerson. "That's what keeps me going. At this point, I don't have to get out of bed early to come here — I choose to come." Tollerson has repeat customers in their 90s, and every year, he greets regulars on vacation from all over the United States. Five-year-old Róvonte Fields dashes up and down the aisles of Tollerson's outfit. He's been coming here with his mother since he could walk, and like Johnson, Tollerson believes in the power of mentoring. He wants to show young Fields how to do business, emphasizing the importance of knowing how to talk to people. Tollerson also looks after his suppliers. He only buys his seafood from licensed wholesale fishermen — four of his shrimpers have been working for the company since his mother's tenure — as it's important to him that he helps revitalize the commercial shrimping and crabbing industry. He keeps an active log that he submits to the S.C. Wildlife Federation, documenting his seafood sales to help ocean conservationists.
The log is required by law, only one stringy piece of the morass Tollerson must navigate to keep his business on the up-and-up. Besides rent, overhead, and labor, everyone selling food street-side has to deal with the realities of licensing and insurance. Some give it a go without a license; others don't dare chance it. The punitive fines are a real kick in the nuts.
Johnson points out that starting a business of this nature is particularly difficult for minority groups in neighborhoods plagued by poverty and crime. The initial set-up can seem mountainous. Alan Horres, director of revenue collections for the City of Charleston, says a business license for an outdoor food business operating in downtown Charleston begins at about $39 for a vendor who expects to make between $0 to $2,000 yearly, and goes up $1.95 for every additional $1,000 he/she profits. The licenses aren't so costly, but they also aren't given with the greatest of ease. To become active, applicants require a DHEC inspection and several other documents. A background check is required, and a felony bars an applicant from receiving a permit to sell anywhere other than private property. Horres points out that there is an appeal process, but applicants say it's an uphill battle. Fees are slightly higher in North Charleston at $60 a year.
Food vendors also need general liability insurance to protect themselves from lawsuits that might arise from mishaps like a customer falling ill after product consumption or a basic slip-and-fall. (However, none of the businesses featured here have ever had such issues.) One food-vending insurer, the Food Liability Insurance Program, offers premiums that start at $299 annually. Anything beyond general liability ups that price dramatically.
Then there's rent. Frazier and Johnson have managed to skirt that issue by conducting business on private property, obtaining letters of permission from the owners. Tollerson rents his spot for $250 monthly, an improvement over the $10 he was paying the City of North Charleston daily before he found a private space. It's when vendors set their sights on more desirable real estate that things get hairy.
Mohamed Bayoume knows this all too well. Together with his brother, Abdul, Bayoume operates three gyro carts in the Charleston area. The first he keeps in the parking lot in front of a store he rents on East Montague Avenue in North Charleston. Though the store, Hot N Krispy, is currently under renovation, the cart sees a decent amount of traffic, the lot serving as an unofficial meet-up spot for neighborhood locals. However, the other two carts are downtown on King Street. They should be Bayoume's bread and butter, but they aren't. He faces a constant struggle to establish himself there. Though he has two other carts waiting, Bayoume can't use all five until he finds a good home for them.
Every year, the City of Charleston holds a franchise auction for the 17 or so spots available for food vendors in the historic district. No matter how long they've been in the game, every vendor must return to the starting line for the yearly auction. The spots start at $1,000, but quickly climb above that. For vendors like Bayoume, who either can't afford the winning bid or haven't been around long enough to witness their first auction, they must opt for an individual peddler's permit decal, $450 yearly. That doesn't bring much assurance.
Permitted peddlers are allowed to vend from non-franchised locations for $10 daily during the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., on a first-come, first-serve basis. It's a vicious daily race to beat out the other salesman and plant the winning flag. Non-franchised sellers are also allowed to vend from any franchised locations that are still vacant after 11 a.m. So Bayoume is constantly scouting, trying to find an open slot where he can set up business for the day. He has obtained permission to vend at the privately owned King Street spots, but only from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., Thursday through Saturday. It's a smart move — patrons spilling out of bars in need of a late-night snack come to him in droves — but Bayoume needs more daytime gigs to survive. He's been forced by police to leave several of the places where he's tried to set up.
It's a shame, too, because Bayoume's gyro carts offer an underrepresented type of cuisine here in Charleston. Originally from Egypt, Bayoume moved to New York City in 2001 in hopes of making money to send to his large family back home. He worked with food carts there as well, but in 2013 he came down to Charleston where he felt the competition would be slimmer and the prospective clientele more preferable. In the Big Apple Bayoume says, he was a statistic. Here, he is special.
His carts are New York-style affairs, metal boxes with two blue and yellow umbrellas advertising Sabrett hotdogs sprouting from their roofs. Pictures and names of dishes (some of which are actually offered by Bayoume, and some of which, confusingly, are not) blanket the sides and back of the cart. You half-expect a guy in an "I Heart NY" T-shirt to be doling out hotdogs from the center.
What you find instead is a tantalizing assortment of halal Middle Eastern dishes. In addition to the trademark vertical spit of roasting lamb, there are kebabs, Italian sausages, and plates of fluffy rice topped with grilled chicken, peppers, and onions. The tzatziki on my gyro is on point, and the pita bread is so fluffy I want to make a pillow out of it. Even if the lamb isn't as heavily seasoned as I'd prefer, the sandwich hits pleasant notes from my memory. I'm transplanted back to my days in Boston, where I ate gyros and falafel on a regular basis all over the city. I try not to look cave-manly as I eagerly lick my sauce-covered palms.
So keep the corner eats coming, Charleston. In the battle to define and re-define what makes a food "authentic," there's no doubt that what these roadside salesman are offering is steadfastly genuine. Even as food trucks increasingly populate the pretty parks and tourist traps that dot our landscape, Frazier and his brethren will remain, nestled in the worn asphalt grooves of Charleston's terra incognita.