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Owner of North Side Barbecue Shop Hits Golden Milestone

Saturday, July 03, 2010
By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

J. Monroe Butler II/Post-Gazette George Wilson, left, owner of Wilson's Bar B-Q on the Central North Side, waits on customers Rick Weaver, center, and Romir Miller on Thursday. Wilson's has been in business for 50 years.

The corner of North Taylor Avenue and Buena Vista Street has been salivation central for much of the 50 years George Wilson has been in business.

Aromas from Wilson’s Bar B-Q in the Central North Side waft in every direction for at least a block, making the inside of the mouth do that tweaky thing that has less to do with hunger than with imagination. Inside, Mr. Wilson, 82, turns slabs of ribs and half and whole chickens on the grate of a 4-by-8-foot pit.

Mr. Wilson is recognizing this year as his 50th anniversary because 1960 was when he decided to go, as he puts it, “legit.” In the 10 years before he was a backyard entrepreneur.

“I lived on Columbus Avenue [in Manchester] and I used to make ribs on Fridays and Saturdays for my family,” he said. “People started coming in and sitting at our tables and chairs. I thought, ‘They’re going to put me in business.’

“I don’t know any barbecue man who started in business without starting in the backyard.”

He closes the blackened iron doors of the pit and disappears into the back to get more wood.

Mr. Wilson, a native of Louisiana, learned by watching his great-grandfather. “He was an ex-slave and when I looked up at him, he looked like a tree. He was a good cook. He and my grandfather would get on a bus and get off at a good place and get an old tub and some chicken wire and set up shop,” he said.

Their itinerant business included a secret sauce.

“It was easy for me to go into this business,” he said.

He trained as a butcher in Little Rock, where he went to high school, and came north with his family when his father got a job in the shipbuilding industry here.

Mr. Wilson worked for 22 years as “a meat fabricator” for the Armour Packaging Co. under the 31st Street Bridge. “That means I knew how to grade meat,” he said. “When I got wind that Armour might be laying off, I decided to start my own business.”

Mr. Wilson’s nephew runs errands for him and “a few elderly ladies help out sometimes,” he said, but his is a one-man show with a set that’s frozen in time. Style? Utilitarian: bare walls, linoleum floor tiles and discolored menus.

The only customer amenities are a big electric fan on the counter, three resin tables and six chairs that look like they were in a doctor’s waiting room in the ’70s.

He said 99 percent of his customers order takeout. Ribs are the headliner, but he also sells chicken, peppered collard greens, macaroni and cheese, potato salad and cole slaw.

“It has been 50 very good years,” he said. “I’ve got the neighbors and people who come in from all over.” Hours are from noon to 8 p.m. every day but Sunday, although he will be open on the Fourth of July.

Rob Slick came through the door for the first time in 1971. He had just moved to the neighborhood. On Thursday morning, he entered the joint to place an order. Mr. Wilson, a genial man whose smile starts modest and spreads out, came out from behind the refrigerator case to greet him.

“I have guests coming for dinner and need four large plates,” Mr. Slick said.

A whole slab is $20.65. A large plate of six ribs is $10.70. “A hog’s anatomy carries 14 ribs,” said Mr. Wilson.

Mr. Wilson was preparing eight whole slabs and five whole chickens for a customer driving from West Virginia when Cynthia Ford walked in for her order Thursday.

“We’re brand new customers” on the recommendation of a friend, she said. Mr. Wilson carried aluminum containers to her car — lunch for a safety training meeting at NRG, a heating and cooling company in Allegheny Center where Ms. Ford is the administrative assistant. “We don’t usually eat this well at safety meeting lunches,” she said.

Wilson’s Bar B-Q first opened in May 1960 at Pennsylvania and Allegheny avenues in Manchester. Ten years later, Mr. Wilson moved the business and himself several blocks east to North Taylor. He lives upstairs.

“Makes it real easy,” he said, “and I can stay on top of things.”

He had a Lawrenceville location for a few years but closed it “I don’t remember when” because his son “didn’t want to be a barbecue man,” he said.

He is apprenticing his daughter to take over the business and by October, he said, he hopes to … “now I’m not saying retirement. Just slowing down. But I told her I’ll be around to help.

“She’s still got a ways to go with the sauce.”

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