The Woman Behind Memphis's 100-Year-Old Diner
In Memphis, a Southern river town built on barbecue and blues and so many other things to see and taste and experience, it might feel strange to regard something like an old-fashioned diner as a one-of-a-kind culinary stop worth a detour.
And yet that's the case with The Little Tea Shop, the diner on Monroe Avenue, just up the street from the University of Memphis Downtown Law School, with a retro neon sign that beckons hungry diners and which has been a fixture in the neighborhood for 100 years. The menu, which changes daily, offers a rotating selection of corn bread sticks, greens and other stapes of classic Southern cooking. It's the kind of food that sticks to your bones and makes you want to slip away into a satisfying coma, the kind of meal a grandmother might put together. Because at The Little Tea Shop, well, that's exactly who's behind it all.
Her name is Suhair Lauck—"Miss Sue," to regulars. She's a 70-year-old Palestinian grandmother who hums to herself when she's not greeting you with coos of "God bless you, honey," and leading you through the scrum to an empty table. Another "God bless you" and there she goes, disappearing to the kitchen. The bell above the front door tinkles. Now she's back, greeting new arrivals and scooping up menus. Visitors smile and wave and nod at the Muslim woman behind the cash register who possesses big, bright eyes, the affectations of a bless-your-heart Southerner, and who happens to make a mean bowl of turnip greens.
Lauck's hair is arranged in a ponytail that spills out of a cap branded with the logo of her beloved Memphis Grizzlies NBA team. Her accent still carries the melodious lilt of her homeland—she's from what is now the West Bank of Jordan. Life can pull off some transformations if you let it, and in Miss Sue's case, she's as proud a Memphian as they come, now going on more than 40 years. Grizzlies games, she'll declare to you, are her therapy, the place where she whoops and yells with abandon along with the rest of the hometown crowd. It's a good way to work out some of the stress of running her restaurant, which she and her late husband, Jimmy, bought in the 80s.
"I go from table to table; I give energy, and they give me energy," she says. "I pray, the minute they enter the Tea Shop. You see new faces. I always think inside me, Please God, make it a happy day for them. I pray on it. I hum a lot. You might say, 'Hmm?' Because I'm talking to you, but I'm also humming. I sing; I pray. Every one of them, all my family, they want me to retire. I say, retire to what?"
The name of the establishment can sound deceptive. This "Tea Shop" isn't some kind of frilly white-tablecloth establishment meant for high-society gatherings and patrons noshing on scones. The inside is decorated with family photos, Memphis memorabilia and corny signs ("We should legalize cannabis in all states, use the taxes to repair roads and highways and call it Operation Pot Hole!").
One of the restaurant's signature offerings is the Lacy Special: a chicken breast sandwiched between two corn bread sticks, drizzled with gravy and served with rice and a vegetable side. Like I said, it'll stick to your bones.
Lunch is the only meal on offer, served five days a week for a crowd who include titans of Memphis's business and legal communities. Judges, bankers, lawyers, a former Tennessee attorney general—the crowd comes for the comfort food. And they keep returning, many of them, to be in the company of the little old lady with the big voice and the spring in her step.
Every day, she starts falling into her usual rhythm around 5 a.m. Her commute isn't far; she lives upstairs above the restaurant. In the crisp chill and stillness of the early hour, Miss Sue hums and prays and gets started on the menu of the day.
"It's me time," she says. "I'm here maybe two, three hours or more before the employees come. Or some of the deliveries. I sing; I hum; I pray; I create. I curse. Whatever you want to think. It's me time. I like to be by myself, because I'm not a morning person."
She likes to be by herself, that is, until lunchtime. It's the fulcrum on which her life pivots. Unlock the door. Arrange the menus. Fire up the kitchen. Her life is an orderly progression of lunchtimes, a culinary ballet executed to her exacting standards each day, all while standing in the same place for barely more than a minute or two at a time.
Miss Sue's famous corn bread sticks.
And she loves to talk. Plenty of political figures, like the former county mayor and former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr., have paid Sue a visit to secure her blessing to display campaign signage. If she buys into whatever the platform is, you've just won yourself an unpaid, chatty and indefatigably persuasive ambassador.
There's something distinctly Memphian about a place like this. Memphis is odd, and not in a negative sense. It's not a small town. It's not exactly a sprawling, cosmopolitan big city. People do their own thing here, their own way. The Little Tea Shop way includes customers filling out paper menus with stubby pencils. They flag a waitress and hand them to her, and she dutifully disappears to prepare the items they've checked off. Simple and efficient.
There is a similar simplicity and predictable rhythm to Miss Sue's life. She didn't imagine this is what she'd be doing at this age. She once thought about being a fashion designer. Life got in the way, as it does. One day, the opportunity presented itself, and she and her late husband bought the restaurant. One day, you wake up and realize this is it, and you're either drifting or in a good place. The owner of The Little Tea Shop considers herself in a good place.
"If you just think, I'm in it for the money, leave it, shut down. Of course, you have to make a living. But the most important thing is you have to love what you're doing. You have to love people. You have to smile, even when I don't feel like smiling. This is not a restaurant. This is a home away from home. Or a gathering. Like where your friends meet. You feel like you're not rushed to eat and leave. This is home."
Andy Meek is a writer based in Memphis. Follow him on Twitter at @aemeek.
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