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Published: Thursday, 2/6/2003

Owner closing book on a dream fulfilled

Four tables and 12 chairs make up the seating in Richey's Bar-B-Q Deli, a rib joint so small that common etiquette nudges you into conversation with anyone else who happens to be in the room.

While the owner fusses back in the kitchen, wrapping Curtis King's take-out order, her longtime customer paces out front and explains his loyalty to this south-end restaurant.

“I don't know of anywhere else that's this consistently good,” says Mr. King, who's been patronizing Richey's since the place first opened 25 years ago.

“I'm here about twice a week - more, now that she's getting ready to shut down,” he says.

Then he adds, sotto voce: “I've been trying to talk her into not closing. It's not working, but I am still trying to make her feel bad about it. I mean, she feels a little bad, but enough. You ever tried the food here? I'd be glad to buy you something!”

`It took me two years to decide to close. I always thought 20 years is a career. It is for me. And it's already been 25 years!' says Era Blakney, inspecting some ribs she is cooking `It took me two years to decide to close. I always thought 20 years is a career. It is for me. And it's already been 25 years!' says Era Blakney, inspecting some ribs she is cooking
ALLAN DETRICH Enlarge

It was easy enough to decline this perfect stranger's offer; I'd already decided to take home some ribs the minute I walked through the door of the small building at Westwood and Hill avenues and got hit by that tangy-smoky-sweet smell.

You might be surprised to know that a place named Richey's is owned by someone named Era Blakney, who laughs as she tells the tale.

“Everyone wants to find out about Richey. Everyone always comes in looking for a man. `Where's Richey?' And I say, `This is she, right here.'”

Richey, it turns out, is the maiden name of Mrs. Blakney's mother. When she opened her restaurant a quarter century ago, the mother of three thought `Richey' might be easier to remember than `Blakney.'

And besides, “It was a way for me to remember and honor my mother.”

The recipe for Mrs. Blakney's sauce, by the way, is the proverbial “old family recipe - it really, truly is. And I have not changed it since the day we opened.”

Getting into the restaurant business - a notoriously grueling industry - was not an obvious next step for a woman who'd recently earned a graduate degree in library science.

Nor is it something she recommends lightly. “Not unless you're one of those people,” she says, “who likes to be punished by worry.”

But she couldn't ignore the fact that the prospect of staying inside a library day in and day out simply did not appeal to her.

With her husband then a young mathematics professor at the University of Toledo (who would later become department chairman), Mrs. Blakney knew that whatever she ended up doing, it would be in Toledo, the family's adopted city.

“I looked around and looked around, and I finally said, `There really isn't a place where you can go to get some ribs.'”

Era Blakney opened Richey's Bar-B-Q Deli at Westwood and Hill avenues 25 years ago. Era Blakney opened Richey's Bar-B-Q Deli at Westwood and Hill avenues 25 years ago.
Enlarge

By September, 1978, she'd taken over a small South Toledo building, and over the ensuing years, she developed a clientele that now laments her retirement at the end of this month. Still, she won't be swayed.

“It took me two years to decide to close. I always thought 20 years is a career. It is for me. And it's already been 25 years! I thought if I didn't close now, I'd tell myself, `Well, just one more year' for years.”

She says her husband, Dr. Simmie Blakney, has no interest in continuing the restaurant.

Nor do either of her three sons: Ben, a former Philadelphia tax commissioner who's now in private-sector finance; Willard, a logician in Dayton, or Erickson, who works in broadcast for a financial news service in New York City.

“I've had some ambivalent feelings about that,” Mrs. Blakney concedes about not handing down her restaurant to any relative.

“But since [her sons] are successful in their fields, and are enjoying it, I think in that case, don't go after someone else's dream. And this was my dream.”

Inside, Richey's cream and yellow walls have the patina of someplace that's had to endure little change over the years. Throughout the afternoon, customers come and go. Most ask for take-out orders, and most seem to know Mrs. Blakney.

“Mild or hot?” she asks each customer, and I find myself wondering how many times she's uttered those words over the last 25 years.

Part of what gives a city its identity comes from one-of-a-kind places like Richey's Barb-B-Q Deli.

The proliferation of chain restaurants throughout Toledo may feed our bellies, but it's place likes these that nourish a city's soul. And every time we lose one, it chips away at the city itself.

There is nowhere else in the world except Toledo, Ohio, where you can savor Richey's Bar-B-Q Deli.

I bought a slab of ribs to take home the day I dropped in unannounced on Mrs. Blakney.

Had to.

It's 22 days and counting until she turns her key in that lock for the last time.



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