About Gus's Fried Chicken - Famous the World Over
In a tiny little town east of Memphis, not 10 yards off the main drag, sits a roadside shack with a broken-down sign and a packed parking lot. After almost 60 years in business, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken is more of a tradition than a location, more an identity than a restaurant. The original location has spawned a chain of successful Memphis franchises. Even in today’s rocky economy, lil’ ol’ Gus’s is “too big to fail” among local lovers of this local icon.
Regular patrons are fond of saying that Gus’s “is not fast food.” Be prepared to wait, or call ahead with your order. Whether you eat at the original family business out in Mason or one of the Memphis franchises, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken has the style and attitude of an old-school, blues-infused southern eatery. Wait your turn, pay your money, stay out of the way, make yourself at home. Do your time, and your reward will be a spectacular specimen of southern fried chicken glory.
The “Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken” recipe is a closely-guarded family secret. Once upon a time, Saveur Magazine asked Gus himself for the recipe. His response? “I ain’t telling!” And neither are his children.
Gus’s chicken is a little different each time you try it. It’s got that handmade character – a little of this, a touch of that, a pinch of love, a dash of hot. Once in a while it’ll be so spicy the tears come. Usually, the heat is more gentle, like the touch of an old friend. As Ed Levine wrote for Serious Eats in 2007, “Gus’s Chicken is still perfect, crisp golden-brown on the outside, moist and succulent on the inside, and salted and seasoned with just enough cayenne pepper to let you know it’s there.”
Even on the spiciest days, once that signature flavor hits your tongue you know you must finish the crunchy, crispy skin and moist, tender meat. The tears will dry, the tongue will heal. But missing a minute of that soul food tradition? Now that would hurt.
The First Generation
In the early 1950s, Napoleon “Na” Bonner and his wife Maggie opened a little restaurant on the “Lower End” of the town square in downtown Mason, TN. It was there that he invented his now-legendary fried chicken recipe in 1953. The fried chicken was such a hit that the place was always full tombursting with customers of every race and creed.
Na and Maggie were not wealthy, but their service and their chicken were so well known that the community raised the money for them to move to a larger location on Highway 70 in 1973. Na, a carpenter by trade, built the restaurant with his own hands. They ran the eatery under the name “Maggie’s Short Orders” until 1983. That year, Maggie passed away and Na followed soon after.
The Second Generation
In 1984, Na and Maggie’s only son Vernon Bonner re-opened the business with his wife Gertrude, using his daddy’s recipe, as “Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken.” His young daughter Tonya suggested the name, since Vernon’s nickname had been “Gus Bully” since childhood. (Tonya grew up to be one of the five souls on the planet to know the secret of Gus’s chicken recipe today.) Vernon ran the business until his death in 2007, still lovingly commemorated on a well-loved dry erase board with an impromptu down-home message: “Gus, Rest In Peace. We love you. 07-24-07.”
Vernon lived to see the original restaurant, the one his father quite literally built, burn in 2002. The family carried little insurance on the building, and repair costs would have exceeded $100,000. Once again, the community came to the rescue. A local architect and longtime friend, John Pruett, offered to draw up design plans free of charge, and Williamson’s Construction provided supplies and labor.
Only 89 days after the fire, Gus’s re-opened its doors in the same spot as Na’s original structure. Once again, the community had come to the aid of the Bonner family. In Mason, chicken is thicker than blood.
The Third Generation
These days, Gertrude is the family matriarch. Her son Terry and his wife Anne are the main owner/operators. Terry’s brother Tarus joins Gertrude to run the restaurant on the weekends, while Terry and Anne, along with assorted members of the Bonner family, keep the place open all week. Only five living family members know the Gus’s recipe: Gertrude and her brood, Terry, Tarus, Tonya, and Rena.
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken has flickered on the edge of national recognition for a decade, ever since GQ Magazine cited it in 2001 as one of the top five restaurants in the country worth hopping on a plane for a meal. Urban Spoon and Where the Locals Eat both include Gus’s on their lists of 100 Best Restaurants in Memphis. In 2007, foodies threw a fit when “those turkeybasters” at Bon Appetit announced their three finalists for the title of “Best Fried Chicken in the United States” and Gus’s wasn’t on the list.
In 2008, Wendy McCrory’s downtown franchise on Front Street was featured as one of the country’s 100 fastest-growing inner-city businesses by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City and Inc. Magazine, according to James Dowd’s article in the Commercial Appeal . Gus’s has also won local awards from the Memphis Commercial Appeal as the Best Southern Fried Chicken in 2009 and 2010. Gus’s most recent national honor (as of May 2011) is their award by Where the Locals Eat: the title of “Best Fried Chicken” for 2010.Even the Tennessee State Senate has weighed in – Senate Joint Resolution # 252 congratulates the Bonner family on their success and thanks them for the quality of their food and service since 1953.
I recently had the honor of watching a two-year-old customer try her first Gus’s fried chicken leg (on a not-so-spicy day). She took a bite and her eyes lit up. Halfway through the leg, chicken grease oozing down her chin, she stopped and exclaimed “Spicyyy!” Her dad tried to give her a drink and take the drumstick, but she snatched it back with an emphatic “No!” Cozied up to the table in her high chair, blonde curls flying, she devoured the rest of the leg without looking up. I was witness to the birth of another Gus’s fanatic.
Mason, TN is a town of about 1000 residents, located 40 miles east of Memphis. The place was originally an agricultural hub and a railroad town, tied into the Memphis economy by the tracks. Once upon a time, that classic Southern “juke joint” culture spawned quality cooking like Na’s and hosted such greats as W.C. Handy, Al Green, and Ike and Tina Turner in Mason’s Lower End. But as machines replaced people in modern agriculture and railroad transportation declined in importance, Mason has struggled to survive. These days, that “juke joint” heritage is fading with the paint on the walls of the Lower End, but the spirit still survives.
As long as the Mid-South produces children who love the chicken as much as their parents, Gus’s will have a market. As long as the Bonners are alive and kicking, Gus’s will have a soul. But will the tradition outlive the current generation? Terry Bonner seems unconvinced that the kids have any interest in carrying on the business. When asked if he’d ever consider passing the recipe on to someone outside the family, he just shakes his head. He feels about it the way his daddy did, he says “It’s a graveyard recipe.”
by Ellie Maclin
Ellie Maclin is a sustainable farmer and food writer who lives with her husband and daughter on a historic farm near Memphis, Tennessee. Ellie has a B.A. in Anthropology and a M.S. in Archaeology; her passion is digging up stories on food, culture, and life in the American South.