HATTIESBURG — When I first visited the Hub City five years ago, my future co-workers allegedly had a heated discussion on where they should take the new guy arriving from New York.
“Take him to a deli. Show him we have delis down here.”
So for lunch, I was promptly delivered to McAlister’s, the closest thing to the real thing Hattiesburg had at the time. I had the chili, which was so good I ate the bowl, literally.
I was able to persuade a colleague to take me to some crayfish etouffee later. He was so shocked by the request, or was it my correct pronunciation, that he almost drove off the road.
There is a rather simple formula I usually apply when I go out to eat on a trip or to a new town. The local restaurants, usually the smaller the better, are the places to eat in town. Ask a local where they eat and when they run off their list, go anywhere you don’t recognize the name.
When I was in Key West with my brother and father recently, we asked the deckhand on our ship where they’d eat. After reeling out such standard fare as Applebee’s and Red Lobster, they mentioned Crabby Dick’s. So that’s where we headed. I have dreams about how wonderful my tuna steak was.
My favorite restaurant in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is a small Cajun place called Spanky’s, run by a couple from New Orleans who moved there to retire. It’s still the best jambalaya I ever had. Great turtle soup too.
If you ever get near East Longmeadow, Mass., be sure to make a stop at The Pizza Shoppe — the best pizza with the best crust anywhere and the only place where you can get a large cheese pizza and a pitcher of beer for only $6.50. (I should never have written this so close to lunchtime.)
The same basic rule holds true for Hattiesburg. The Purple-Hog-Grill complex, Leatha’s and heaven-on-earth steaks at Donanelle’s are the names I’d give someone who asked me the best in town.
Chains are fine. You can go anywhere and know, most of the time, that you get the same fare, at the same price, you do anywhere. I’m a regular at Outback, Chili’s and O’Charley’s here in Hattiesburg, but once I’m in New Orleans, Chicago or even Jackson, I won’t go near those places. Then I have friends who only eat at those places wherever they go, the kind of people who would eat at a Taco Bell in Mexico and say they were eating local. But I digress.
I say all that, to say this. There’s a new chain coming to town. Unlike most franchises, this one has a very local connection — so local that Hattiesburg can almost call it one of its own — almost.
Memphis-based Lenny’s Sub Shop is building a free-standing store at the site of the old Hub City Coffee Company in the University Mall.
Founded by Philadelphia, as in Pennsylvania, native Len Moore and his wife Shelia in September 1998 when the two couldn’t find what they considered a traditional Philly cheese-steak sandwich in Memphis.
Using the experience they gained running a sub shop in Wildwood, N.J. from 1979 to 1981, they gave themselves a loan off their credit cards and opened the first Lenny’s in Bartlett. Lenny’s now has eight locations in Memphis as well as locations in Destin and Niceville, Fla., and Fayetteville, Ark. In late to mid-August, they’ll open their new Hattiesburg shop, complete with 18 different subs and sandwiches, served on fresh-baked breads with a half-pound of meat for regular and a pound of meat for large, sliced while you wait. (Burp, excuse me.)
You may be wondering: Where’s the local connection? At the helm will be two people very familiar to Hattiesburg restaurant patrons: Chester Smith and Kate Wingo. Yes, the former Chesterfield’s duo are back in town.
Smith, former director of operations of Chesterfield’s for six years, will serve as the managing partner for the store, as he does for the two Florida locations, while Wingo is the company’s director of marketing.
The two Florida stores are co-located in Shell Convenience Stores owned by York Development. Through those connections they were alerted to the Hub City Coffee location.
“We can’t wait to come back,” Wingo said recently. “Hattiesburg has been very good to us. We have a great history here and we’ve missed it.”
Only time will tell what the locals think, but at least I can finally cross a deli off my list. Now, if someone would open a New York-style pizza place it would save my parents a lot of FedEx charges. Seems I’m out of their local delivery area.
Thank you. I’m done. Let’s eat.
Matt “Pass-the-Biscuits” Martin is advertising director for Cellular One in Hattiesburg. He is a regular contributor to the Mississippi Business Journal.