Corky’s Don Pelts was a barbecue giant in a barbecue town, but his friends and family remember him as a man with a great appetite for life and a generous and fun spirit.
“He loved Chinese food. He also loved Pete & Sam’s, Jim’s Place and Buckley’s. When he said he was going out to eat, I knew where he was going,” said Robbie Levine, who started working for Mr. Pelts when he bought The Public Eye in 1974 and went with him to Corky’s when he opened it in 1984.
Mr. Pelts died on Wednesday after a heart attack at M.A. Lightman Bridge Club, where he regularly played. He was 72.
“He was a huge bridge fan,” said his son, Barry Pelts. “He would go on bridge cruises all over the world.”
Mr. Pelts’ death came on the same day as another of Memphis’ barbecue giants, John Willingham, and on the eve of the city’s annual Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
Mr. Pelts was also an avid golfer, tennis player and Grizzlies fan.
“He loved just being a guy,” said longtime friend Bob Phillips. “He enjoyed so many things, and he was so bright. He was always a fun guy who made people smile, but he was also very smart and an excellent businessman.”
Oddly, a passion for pork was not what led him to the barbecue business.
“He got into barbecue because he was looking for a job,” his son said.
A Memphis native, Mr. Pelts graduated Christian Brothers High School and Vanderbilt University, and worked in the family business, Donald’s Furniture, on summer vacations. When it closed, Mr. Pelts was out of work for about a year before buying The Public Eye with his brother-in-law. He kept his eye on the property at 5259 Poplar, and opened the first Corky’s only when that specific property became available — even though another barbecue restaurant had failed in the same spot.
“He said it would probably fail, but he was going to go in with guns loaded,” Barry Pelts said. “He said he was going to hire a great pitmaster and great managers, use great ingredients, and he had a great work ethic. He was at the restaurant all the time and made the decision that there wasn’t going to be a piece of food served until he saw it. He’d run back and forth between the drive-thru and the kitchen. He believed in sweating the little things.”
Today there are three Corky’s in Memphis, eight franchises and a large presence on QVC for selling Corky’s products across the country.
His father knew his employees were critical to his success, Barry Pelts said, and he took pleasure in being a part of their lives.
“He was my best friend and he was my father, but he was like a father to all the employees,” he said. “He was almost embarrassed by his own success if he couldn’t use it to help others, and he did many good deeds. It made him happy.”
He was quick to show his appreciation.
“He was very personable, and he took great interest in his employees in good times and bad,” Levine said. “Everyone wanted a ‘slap-down’ from Don. When he’d see an employee do something that deserved it, he’d give them a ‘slap-down’ on the spot, which could be money that he’d slap down, or words of praise. And he was a true-blue friend to many.”
Memphis attorney Arnold Perl said Mr. Pelts was one of the first people he met after arriving in the city in 1963. Mr. Pelts treated workers at Corky’s as family and considered location, serving the best food and putting customers first as keys to business, Perl said.
In life, Mr. Pelts was a happy person who always saw the best in people and considered his children to be his legacy, Perl said.
“Don Pelts was an extraordinary visionary and a tireless worker, a great family person and a wonderful friend,” Perl said.
Besides his son, Mr. Pelts leaves his wife of 47 years, Linda K. Pelts; a daughter, Patricia Lyn Woodman; a brother, Marshall A. Pelts, and five grandchildren, all of Memphis. Canale Funeral Home has charge. The funeral is Friday at 2 p.m. at Temple Israel, 1376 E. Massey.
There will be a procession following to the Temple Israel Cemetery, 1708 Hernando Road, for graveside burial at 3:30 p.m.
The family request donations be sent to the Don Pelts Memorial Fund for Education at the Jewish Foundation of Memphis, 6560 Poplar Ave., Memphis, TN, 38138
Services for former Shelby County commissioner and barbecue entrepreneur John Willingham will be held Sunday, his birthday, at 3:30 p.m. at Christ the King Lutheran Church, 5296 Park. Visitation will be at the church 1:30-3:30 p.m. The family asks that in lieu of flowers any memorials be sent to Church Health Center, Christ the King Lutheran Church or Lord of Life Lutheran Church.
Staff reporter Kevin McKenzie contributed to this story.