Monday, December 1, 2014

Smoked Turkey and Slaw - The Burge Family Tradition.

Alden Burge came to Arkansas in 1953. He brought his family up from Shreveport, bought a home and went to work in the oil fields nearby. Mr. Burge loved to barbecue, and he built his smoker in the backyard and got to smoking. Fellow co-
workers and neighbors asked him to start barbecuing for them and he did, eventually even making up smoked chickens, beans and coleslaw to sell at high school football games each fall.

Some nine years later, Burge was offered the
chance to buy a little dairyette at the intersection of Highway 82 and Highway 29. It seemed a prime opportunity for his family -- so he and his wife and their three kids jumped in to create this family-run barbecue joint. It caught on quickly -- fueled by the great wonders of smoking Burge had refined and paired with a magnificent round of burgers, ice cream desserts and family traditions. The place became well known for its smoked hams and turkeys -- which some folks passing through would take with them -- and for smoking goat and serving peppermint ice cream on Independence Day.

The Burge family bought the Little Rock restaurant in 1974, a small storefront on R Street with a few tables and a kitchen. In 1979, the Burge family bought the space next door and expanded the place into what it is today. Alden's son Jack Burge ran the restaurant until just a few years ago.

Jeff Voyles owns Burge's today.
“Back in the day, he would sit here in this corner and talk with his customers,” current owner Jeff Voyles told me one afternoon while talking on the west side of the restaurant. “This was the smoking side, and that was the non-smoking side.”

Voyles bought the restaurant five years ago at the insistence of Jack Burge. “I was an investment broker for 20 years,” he stated, “I was with Stephens here locally, and Jack Burge was a client of mine. I handled his personal investments. I would send his hams and turkeys to all my investment clients for holiday gifts, birthdays and so forth.

"I picked up right away that when I sent a ham or a turkey to a family for the holidays, the next year I couldn’t send them a coffee mug. If I did they’d think they’d done something wrong or that I was mad at them. So I was getting good business for him and he was also a good client of mine.

“I think when he started thinking about retiring,” Voyles continued, “particularly because it was a business his father started and had his name on it, he didn’t want to just put it up for sale. He brought the idea to me about seven years ago, said ‘Jeff, you outta buy this place off me, you’d be great at it.’ And I said ‘Jack, you’ve lost your damn mind!’ Now, I was wearing suits and ties every day in the corporate world… we kept talking about it, and I looked at it for about a year and a half, and I thought ‘you know what? Why not?’ so I did it. Gave away all my ties, my suits… it’s similar [to investment banking] because it’s still about customer surface, doing what you need to do to make the customer happy. The difference is, when I went to work in the morning at Stephens, I never had to wonder if the floors had been mopped, if the air conditioning was working, or if there was a leak. Here, every day, whether it’s at this location or the one in Lewisville, there’s something that needs to be tended to. Sometimes it’s an urgent matter and sometimes it’s twenty small items. But that’s also the difference between running a small business and working for a larger operation.

“When I came in I was very careful not to undo what had become such a terrific tradition,” Voyles shared, pointing out 1966 era license plates from his personal collection, different memorabilia on the walls and the new booths that line the far walls. “I added these booths – those two came
Chopped barbecue beef po'boy at Burge's in the Heights.
from Jerry Van Dykes. They were here for over a year – and I have customers that have been coming in three times a week for the past 30 years, who would do a double take and say ‘have those always been there?’ and I’d say ‘of course they have!’ and then I’d let them in on the joke, that I’d just put them in two weeks ago. But everyone loved them, so I added these [indicating the ones on the other wall] a year ago. Cosmetically, that’s all I’ve done.

“From the food standpoint, the first year I was here, I tried the turkey melt. I had Willie cook one up and I bit into it and it was cold. I asked ‘why isn’t this grilled hot?’ ‘We’ve never done it like that’ I was told, so I said ‘these are turkey melts, I think they need to be grilled hot.’ Our turkey melt sales went up dramatically, one of our best-selling sandwiches.

“We cook everything from scratch. You order a burger or fish, we cook it to your order. We aren’t cooking 60 pieces of fish and waiting for people to come by. And when we’re really crowded, people may have to wait 15 minutes for fish, but what I’ve seen is people would rather do that. Plus, they’re in an environment where they’re comfortable and having a good time. They know their food is cooked just for them.”

Staff at Burge’s in the Heights tend to stick around, including three members of a single family – Louise
A cooler near the front counter contains all sorts of easy to
take home delights, including hams and turkeys, smoked
cheeses, coleslaw and that famed turkey salad. There are also
bottled beverages for those who'd rather have their drink
out of glass than out of the fountain.
Henderson and her daughter Audra Henry and son Willie Ward. “Mama, we call her Mama, Louise in the back, she just finished her 30th year,” Voyles went on. “She makes our coleslaw from scratch, our world favorite turkey salad. We sell 80-100 containers of that a day, more during the holidays. It’s not unusual for someone to come in and get six quarts with a checklist in front of
Burge’s Smoked Turkeys sells around 12,000
whole smoked turkeys a year, but the spiral
sliced half-ham is the company’s biggest seller.
them, they’ve come from Dallas and they’ve been told not to come back without it! Our turkey salad travels to Oklahoma, New York… a lot of kids who grew up in this area, when they call their parents, that’s on their request list, ‘next time you come, bring the turkey salad.’ ”

Both the Little Rock and the Lewisville restaurants
are still going strong, but it’s the smoked turkey operation that’s earned the Burge name its greatest claim to fame. The Burge's website is, after all, SmokedTurkeys.com. All the birds are smoked in Lewisville, in a facility that’s grown exponentially as word has spread about the famed Burge’s smoked turkeys. The smoker kicks up early each year, smoking turkeys as they come in. The smoked meats are then frozen and kept in reserve until they’re needed. Voyles says it’s a big operation.

“We’ll ship out just in November
and December, 16-20 thousand packages, in what really comes down to about 12 shipping days. We spend the year building up our capacity and product, and send most of it out in a very short window. Ninety percent of our mail order business happens in those two months.”

While there are both a catalogue and a website for ordering, many still choose to dial the company’s 1-800 number. “They want to call the same girls they’ve talked to for the past 25 years, talk about the weather and place their order. But we do have a good number of people who are placing orders straight from the website. What I’ve found is that I pick up more corporate customers – as those people receive that package, now they become customers. They like the products, they want to order something else.

“There will be particularly during Christmas as we hit the end of the season, we’ll run out – we run out of the bone-in turkey breast by the second week of December. A good rule of thumb -- invariably folks will want to pick it up the day before Thanksgiving. We encourage them to come in Tuesday or even Monday – to try to keep there from being 400-500 people at one time trying to pick up their turkey!”

Voyles says one thing has changed. “I have picked up more catering business since I’ve been here. I tell these folks – only problem, if you send them our food this year, you’ll have to do it again next year. We’ll send catfish, coleslaw, fried pies… next time around they’ll ask ‘do you want us to send [fast food restaurant]’ and they’ll demand ours!”

He says it’s always easy to spot the newcomers. “Our menu is 40 feet long. I can always tell when someone new comes in – because of the time it takes them to figure out what they’re going to have. I always ask them where they’re from, and sometimes I‘ll get someone who says oh, 15 minutes from here, they’ve passed by many times and never knew we were here.”

** Fun Fact ***
The Leftover Plate at Burge’s got its name because the day the restaurant set everything out to put together the menu, it was the last thing to be selected. Ten to twelve plates of the combination of turkey salad, tomato slices and peach half with cottage cheese are sold each day.

Burge's in the Heights
5920 R Street
Little Rock, AR 72207
(501) 666-1660
Burge's Hickory Smoked Turkeys & Hams Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Burge's
526 Spruce Street
Lewisville, AR 71845
(870) 921-4292
Burge's Hickory Smoked Turkeys Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
SmokedTurkeys.com

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