Arkansas filmmakers working on documentary about Memphis’ Rendezvous restaurant

by George Jared ([email protected]) 2,683 views 

An old-time coal chute and a man named Charlie Vergos changed dining in Memphis and throughout the South almost six decades ago.

In 1948, Vergos co-owned Wimpy’s, a “three and meat” restaurant in Memphis. When the owners couldn’t agree on how to run the business, Vergos opened a sandwich and beer shop in the basement of the same building which was across the alley from the world-famous Peabody Hotel.

In the basement, Vergos found an old coal chute and he converted it into a smoker to flavor ham. He named his makeshift cafe Rendezvous. He would eventually invent dry rub ribs and it would become one of the most famous restaurants in the United States.

The story of how this unique restaurant was established and how it has remained in operation for more than 70 years intrigued filmmaker Jack Lofton and Ruth Whitney, the co-founder of MudRoom Productions, an independent film company based in Arkansas. They decided to create a film, The Vous, which explores the history of the Bluff City through the lens of the restaurant and its vaunted wait staff.

Lofton told Talk Business & Politics the project began in 2018 when he read an article about the history of making ribs in the city. He and co-director Jeff Dailey immediately went to Memphis and started filming. Several waiters were set to retire and Lofton said they needed to get footage as quickly as possible. One waiter had worked there for more than 50 years.

“We wanted to capture that oral history. I felt the energy and felt that I could invest my time and really, with any film, it kind of consumes you,” he said.

Vergos become one of the larger-than-life characters in the city, but before his restaurant catapulted to fame, he had to make other changes. By the late 1950s, he realized he needed to diversify the menu.

After trying chicken and oysters, his butcher came to him with the one thing he had plenty of: ribs.

At that time, ribs were scrap meat. Ribs had been a staple of backyard barbecues in Memphis neighborhoods for years, but not used in restaurants. Vergos came up with the still used formula. He threw the racks in 18 inches from the fire and grilled them for an hour and fifteen minutes to seal in the flavor. A vinegar wash kept them moist. And Vergos created a rub based on the seasoning from his father’s unique Greek chili recipe and the cajun spices he discovered on visits to New Orleans. He added paprika to give it a more traditional barbecue color, according to the Rendezvous website.

As the menu evolved, so did the wait staff that worked there. The film explores the deep bonds and connections the staff has with each other, the customers and others. Waiters spend years as busboys, rib runners, and even bartenders, Lofton said. During this years-long process, they are proving they can handle world famous customers such as Bill Clinton, Peyton Manning, Scottie Pippen, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others. Many of these celebrities would become personal friends with the waiters and would communicate with them often through text messages, Lofton said.

Whitney’s and Lofton’s vision is to establish a vibrant filmmaking industry in the Natural State. Both have law degrees and have a passion for filmmaking.

“Jack and I sat down and we put together a business plan and I said, ‘Look, this can happen with the right talent and the right people.’ We’ve got everything from gaffers to producers, directors, storytellers, and we’ve got connections to those folks because we’re fortunate enough to have worked with individuals who’ve been successful in the business,” she said. “And so from that perspective, from a business perspective, and from a selfish sort of Arkansan perspective, I wanted to see the jobs stay here and the business grow here to support the industry in Arkansas.

And Jack had the right passion. I think we have a good vision for what we want to do and what we want MudRoom to be known for, which is again, amazing stories that are done and produced in a quality way with unprecedented talent.”

Part of the process is luring investors and marketing the films that are produced. The company focuses on documentaries which are doing well right now, Lofton said. One investor, Pat O’Brien, told Talk Business & Politics he got involved with MudRoom following a party.

“I stayed too late at the Christmas party in December of 2019 and got involved in a conversation with Jack and had never met him, but literally at that time, we had 400 mutual Facebook friends. It was crazy that we hadn’t ever met. And I was just drawn to his creativity. He told me a little bit about The ‘Vous. Well, it was late and the host was like, ‘It’s late,’ and so it was time to go. I sent and got my coat. I came back and Jack had his phone out, he was getting an Uber. And I said, ‘You didn’t drive?’ And he said, no. I said, ‘Where do you live?’ And next thing you know, I gave him a ride home. If I hadn’t done that, I don’t think I’d be involved.”

The two met for dinner after that, and following a three-hour conversation, O’Brien not only agreed to invest his own money, he decided to help raise hundreds of thousands of dollars that would be needed to fund The Vous.

The film is slated to be released in 2022. Lofton and Whitney hope to premiere it at Sundance and some of the other major film festivals. The company is now working on three projects and several others are in the works.

“We’re an American Southern film company and our goal is to produce stories that are riveting, that are meaningful, that have culture and history and are produced in a quality way. So The ‘Vous presented itself as that very thing – a meaningful, historic, relevant opportunity to share that story,” Whitney added. “We want to be a top-shelf film company, based in Arkansas, telling stories from across the country.”