by Eric Ginsburg
The name, Dee’s Juke Joint, is more aspirational than descriptive.
The small operation at the corner of the Mobil gas station parking lot looks more like an elaborate tailgating setup or backyard cookout than a juke joint. For starters, Donnie Suggs is working under a Carolina Panthers tent rather than a roof. Part of the agreement allowing him to grill and sell on the lot prohibits him from selling beverages. And today, Thursday, in the early-afternoon sun, the boombox tuned to NC A&T University’s radio station has run out of batteries, so there’s no music, either.
Suggs, 56, is unaffected. There’s a line of people, most of them black men like him, waiting to eat his food. Handwritten signs on two posterboards list the daily menu, served several days a week at this gas station near Interstate 40 in south Greensboro: beef hotdogs with homemade chili and slaw for $2, barbecue-smoked chopped turkey sandwiches for $4 and hot Italian sausages for $2.75. On Saturdays, unless Suggs is cooking at a special event, the menu here expands to include fish and ribs both with the bone in.
Suggs, whose hat says, “We grill while you chill,” has one woman helping him today and most days to keep up with the orders. When she makes an offhand comment about leaving, Suggs replies in his typical, good-natured tone: “You ain’t gon’ quit or I’m-a call your grandmother.”
Saturdays require more help — usually Suggs plus three others — and for festivals like an upcoming beer fest in Charlotte, even more hands are needed. It can be an arduous process trying to make fresh chili each morning, brining turkey and cooking it over coals or wood and starting Saturdays at 4 a.m. to make sure everything is ready to serve about six hours later.
Suggs would be doing this in some form whether or not he was attempting to make it a full-time gig; in some ways it’s an outgrowth of the season-ticketholder’s tailgating at Panthers’ games.
“This is where my heart is,” Suggs says as he adds slaw to a chopped turkey sandwich. And he has the library to prove it at home, a collection dedicated to cooking and grilling techniques in particular, with the Bible as the lone exception, he says.
Some of Suggs’ customers pull their pickups or work trucks to the front of his tent, ordering as if it were a drive-thru, while others park and walk over to the side. When traffic slows, Suggs will invite people to step into the tent’s shade or pull up one of his folding Panthers’ chairs while they wait.
Lamont Corbett, who says he was headed to Taco Bell on his lunch break, saw Suggs’ sign and is curious about the sausage dog, but Suggs up-sells him on the chopped turkey sandwich. It’s hot, a little spicy, and overflowing onto the tin foil wrap, and Suggs wants to know if the man would like a little “liquid love sauce” on the meat before he adds slaw.
“Liquid love gets me sprung every time,” Suggs says. “It will make you come back.”
And he’s right.
Dee’s Juke Joint may be an ambitious name for the month-old business, but it indicates where Suggs wants to take things while paying homage to where it all started.
Suggs, who has lived in Greensboro for 37 years, grew up in the speck of a town known as Snow Hill between Greenville, Kinston and Goldsboro not far from the North Carolina coast. He remembers being tossed from juke joints as a kid, though he kept trying to sneak in, drawn by the music and food. The two would prove to be his twin passions.
When he was still in high school, Suggs began playing trumpet professionally. In 1977, he moved to the Gate City to attend Greensboro College, where he studied music performance and business management. Suggs eventually turned his music into a full-time gig, sharing a stage with groups like Atlantic Starr and Cameo.
“I played professionally for 10 years, that’s what’s wrong with me,” Suggs jokes. “I don’t believe I’ve been traditional my whole life.”
Suggs “calmed down” after getting married. As he would several times later in life, he figured out how to pivot.
In the early 1990s, he was one of two street vendors set up in downtown Greensboro, long before food trucks came into vogue. Under the banner of Hot Diggity Dog, Suggs sold hot dogs in front of First Citizens Bank on South Elm Street. But with the birth of his son, Suggs decided he needed to hold down a more reliable, full-time job.
Initially he tried to join the Greensboro Fire Department. Pulling up the bottom of his shorts to expose scar tissue on both knees, Suggs says that burns he suffered during training proved too painful to continue that career path. He made the jump to selling cars.
For the following 15 years, Suggs labored in the industry off and on, beginning at North State Chevrolet. The dealership on the north side of downtown Greensboro later closed and has since become an apartment complex in the regenerated area of the city’s core. More recently, Suggs sold cars for Rice Toyota.
For the final six years before developer Roy Carroll tore it down to make way for high-end apartments and a boutique hotel last summer, Suggs lived in the Dixie apartment building by the Greensboro Grasshoppers’ stadium.
The Dixie, a historic structure a block from Suggs’ former employers at North State Chevy, was one of the few affordable housing options in downtown. With about a month’s notice, Suggs and other residents were involuntarily forced to leave, he says. Now Suggs lives in the Stonesthrow Apartment Homes across from Smith High School off South Holden Road, in a lower-middle class area in the southwestern part of the city. There is frustration and a little longing in his voice when he laments the convenience of living in a walkable neighborhood with an enjoyable nightlife.
He still cooked for tailgates and private events intermittently, and recently decided to take another stab at it as an occupation.
This August, Suggs took his last $100 to start Dee’s Juke Joint. Laying the five $20 bills out on top of a shirt emblazoned with the new business’ logo, Suggs took a quick personal video, which he narrated.
“It’s amazing what the Lord can do when you do your part,” he says in the clip. “My thing is, I do what I can, God will do what I can’t. God bless Dee’s Juke Joint — we grill while you chill, and I’ll see you at the top.”
A week after Suggs converted Lamont Corbett, the former Taco Bell customer is back for another sandwich and sausage. The stereo is working this time, and 102 JAMZ plays loudly from under a side table piled with hamburger buns.
Suggs is working alone this time — his help is sick — and when Corbett walks up during a lull, Suggs is taking the opportunity to cook a full turkey on one of his three grills just outside the tent.
“It’s nice to stay busy, but when you’re by yourself, it’s nice to catch your breath,” Suggs says.
It can be hard to find a full turkey; sometimes Suggs can only get his hands on a breast. He brines the meat the night before with honey, kosher salt, thyme and peppercorn in a multi-step process that varies in length depending on the bird’s size. With today’s meat almost ready to come off the grill, Suggs trades out his thin latex gloves for heavy-duty black rubber ones that protect half of his forearms in order to handle and chop the hot turkey.
“Yeah man, when you put these gloves on, you feel like something’s about to happen,” he says. “It is.”
The turkey skin is part of the appeal and enhances the taste, Suggs says as he chops it into small bits with his butcher knife. Next he starts pulling out bones before breaking apart the turkey.
“It comes right out,” he says of a bone. “I slide it off like we playing games.”
Suggs chops quickly, clears the cutting board and breaks off more of the bird. He loves turkey. Not just the taste, he says, but also the way it looks cooked; the screensaver on his cell phone is an image of two grilled turkeys.
[pullquote]Find Dee’s Juke Joint at the corner of South Elm-Eugene and Florida streets in south Greensboro, in the Mobil gas station parking lot, from Tuesday through Friday, and occasionally on Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.[/pullquote]
Barbecued turkey is a healthier alternative to pork, he says, but he’ll happily talk about how back home in eastern North Carolina people cook the whole hog and not just pork shoulder. Suggs’ cooking has evolved since his high school days in his kitchen in Snow Hill, but even in his less traditional dishes — maybe a chicken wing served like a frog leg on a bamboo skewer — Suggs’ roots are apparent.
There’s a steady flow of people to eat his cheap, flavorful street food, including a black woman with hair dyed bright red who works at a neighboring salon, a young Latino man and a retired white man wearing a golf shirt who orders two hot dogs, all the way, for himself and his wife.
Several of Suggs’ customers are laborers, some of whom are wearing work uniforms, and at one point he jokes with an Atlanta Falcons fan about football allegiances after she says she can’t be seen under his Panthers canopy. A car with “Spazzy Jazz” written above a rear wheel pulls up and Suggs quickly walks over, explaining later that the man came by earlier and wanted to pay with a $100 bill but had come back with change before taking his lunch.
And in a massive white Dodge Ram truck, Rex Durrett is waiting for an order to be ready.
Durrett operates Crazy Ribman, a similar style of street food inspired by his Memphis roots. He sets up at a gas station as well — in his case, across from A&T’s campus on East Market Street — and does special events like Suggs. Rather than competing, the two men frequent each other’s businesses, and are talking about teaming up soon for an out-of-town festival.
Durrett hasn’t tried Suggs’ ribs yet — they aren’t on the regular menu, and Durrett is usually operating his own stand on Fridays and Saturdays. He’s curious.
“Saturday’s coming up,” he says.
By 2 p.m., the lunch rush has calmed, allowing Suggs a chance to regroup. He takes off his Lil Wayne T-shirt, from when the rapper performed at A&T’s homecoming concert in 2007, switching out the dirtied shirt for a white one promoting Dee’s Juke Joint, featuring crossed butchers knives and blue type.
Suggs takes advantage of the short break to prepare a chopped turkey sandwich for himself, adding the liquid love to give it a mild spice and then slaw before slapping on the top of the bun.
“I’ve got to learn how to make smaller sandwiches, man,” he says, looking down at the overflowing meal that will probably force him to pick up turkey spilled on the tin foil with his fingers.
The slaw is designed to add a much-needed crunch to the mix, Suggs says, but it’s his wood and coal-fired cooking method, use of turkey and the addition of some skin and sauce that make the sandwich memorable and enticing.
Taking a seat in one of his Panthers chairs in the shade, Suggs leans over his lap and takes a large bite. He’s shaking his head and repeatedly moaning with pleasure.
“Damn, I made this?” he says incredulously. “It makes such a difference when it’s fresh.”
He’s almost perpetually joking and upbeat, and true to form he adds, “Where’s my Heineken?”
The way Suggs, who is actually drinking pink lemonade, reacts makes it sound like it’s his first time sampling his own craftsmanship.
Actually, he eats one of these sandwiches every day.
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Donnie I am super excited for this venture! I know you can do it without a doubt. I love you and I know Daddy is smiling down on us.