Hot Sauce Legacy: 52 years of Family-Owned BBQ
The framed black and white photographs on the wall at Hot Sauce Legacy Barbecue transport Barbara Williams to another time. The vivid images are reminiscent of an old movie, but they are family photographs; remnants of an era of East Cleveland many have heard about but most never actually lived through.
Barbara is the wife of the late Lemaud Williams who started the BBQ restaurant with his four older brothers on Hough in 1964. When Barbara met Lemaud, she was 19 years old and recently moved from Alabama. He was a 23-year-old from Mississippi working as an usher at an East side movie theater. The rest is history.
Before opening his first restaurant, Lemaud worked for a McDonalds where he was recognized for his leadership. The company had plans to send him to the training center nicknamed “burger college” located near Chicago to educate him about management but instead, he proposed to follow his own path by opening his own BBQ restaurant.
Initially, Barbara had her concerns. Little did she know at the time that Hot Sauce Williams would become a nationally recognized restaurant serving pork ribs, polish boys and crispy fried chicken slathered in a tangy famous sauce, for over half a century. The Williams family currently operates three locations on Superior, Lee Rd, and Carnegie.
Their sauce is equally as full of personality as their vibrant purple and blue painted Carnegie location. The sauce is a vinegar and tomato base that includes onion powder, garlic powder, and sherry wine powder that has been tweaked to perfection over the years. The result is sweet, tangy, and a little bit spicy. People near and far commonly crave their sauce, placing orders through the mail.
Part of the mythology that surrounds the Hot Sauce restaurants is the cast of people who have famously eaten there. The list includes everybody from the Indian’s restaurant regular, Kenny Lofton to Anthony Bourdain dining with Michael Symon. Bill Clinton ate at Hot Sauce Williams before the quadruple bypass surgery that led him to a vegan diet. Perhaps one of the most fascinating is when the restaurant was located on Euclid across from Leo’s Casino. Hot Sauce Williams became the late night destination for many of the performers and the Williams attended many performances including Otis Redding’s last show in Cleveland before dying tragically in a plane crash the following morning.
“There are a lot of people that know us by name because we’ve traveled a lot. We have been as far north as Canada, as far east as Boston, and south as Georgia,” says Barbara. They became a fixture at the state fair from the mid ‘70s until the early ‘90s, participating in countless cook-offs. Barbara looks back on these times fondly, recalling everything from selling BBQ in the pouring rain to seeing Dolly Parton perform as onlookers watched from the roofs of their RVs.
They carry on the tradition by serving remotely at many outdoor events including Gather in Glenville and Wade Oval Wednesdays. They are planning to eventually purchase their own food truck.
Although the Williams family did a lot of traveling, their roots are firmly planted in the Glenville neighborhood and they have no intent to leave. “That was my husband’s focus,” says Barbara. “He got approached a lot about leaving and opening business on the West side but he said he wanted to stay in the area he lived in.”
Their Superior location was named Hot Sauce Williams until 2011 when it closed for two years and then re-opened in 2014. “The neighborhood needed something and we wanted to try to keep it going,” she says. After Lemaud passed away in 2013, Hot Sauce Williams was reborn as Hot Sauce Legacy with his share of the business.
At one point, the Williams family owned five restaurants, including their previous Hough and Euclid locations that are no longer in operation. For a period of time they operated a small disco venue called Que 5 that served late night barbecue on Hayden, right off of Shaw. Down the street, they owned another small venue called The Diamond Room. “I miss when people used to work hard all week and then dress up to go dancing,” she says. The business that they used to generate from nightlife has dwindled, yet Barbara is still hopeful for Glenville.
“Glenville is on the rise. When we first opened we had a really thirsty business but now there’s no night life left in the area, so we don’t get a nightclub crowd and there is no foot traffic in the area after a certain time in the night,” she laments. “But it does seem to be on the upturn with all the all new businesses coming in. There’s a new influx of residents in the Wade Park area and they are moving slowing towards the Superior Area. We are hoping that we can hang on long enough until that happens.”
You can try a piece of history for yourself at Gather in Glenville on September 11th between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. as Hot Sauce Williams Legacy serves up a full menu and a little bit of Cleveland history as well.