“I’d like Speed Queen to continue for more generations.”

I have customers who come into Speed Queen Bar-B-Q to this very day that come through our door and they'll be like, ‘I remember when your mom was pregnant with you and she couldn't even barely walk.’

Giovanni Gillespie | Milwaukee, WI

I remember when I was little, putting on a chef’s coat and having a little pad and writing orders and following my mom around when she was here working. We were down here all the time. We slept down here. We lived down here. It was part of our world.

My mother, Betty Gillespie, opened Speed Queen when she was 19 years old. We have been an established restaurant since 1956. It’s an incredible thing to be part of that and I’m very, very proud of it.

She was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. Her family migrated here when she was seven with the industrialization happening up north. Her stepfather, Clyde Bryson, was a World War II veteran and worked at the manufacturer A.O. Smith. My grandmother did different kinds of odd jobs, from cleaning homes to doing people’s laundry, things like that, whatever she could do to make some money. 

My mom was the oldest of eight, she had four brothers and three sisters, so she’s always been a very, strong woman and helped raise her siblings. A lot of her friends used to call her ‘Bossy’ Betty Bryson because she was always in charge. 

She learned how to cook mostly from her grandmother, my grandmother and her aunts. We tend to call it soul food, really it’s just Southern cooking: greens, fried chicken, catfish, gumbo, chitlins, pig’s feet, all that stuff. From the rooter to the tooter, they ate everything you can eat on the farm. The food practice of not wasting anything goes back to slavery.

My father, Arthur Gillespie, was the second oldest of seven, and my mother was the oldest of eight, so I have a lot of cousins and aunts and uncles. For every holiday, my mom would have enough food for 200 people. We’re talking prime rib, turkey, ham, chicken, lasagna, dressing, stuffing, mashed potatoes, homemade rolls, homemade pies and cakes. All for one meal. She really did it up. I still have certain smells that I just get happy thoughts about, and it just makes me really happy. I miss her fried chicken still to this very day. 

Back in the summer of 1955, she was just out of high school and she had met her first husband, Leonard Partee. They were dating for a while, maybe a year, and she decided she wanted to open a restaurant. When she was 19, they opened up Speed Queen Barbecue over on 5th and Vliet. Back then you didn’t have to have all the licenses and things you needed now. You just open a restaurant, you put up a sign and you start selling food. And people started coming. 

They were next to a place called Black King BBQ. Black King was the bomb. I mean, they were packed every day, lines out the door, just crazy. Speed Queen struggled in the beginning. At that time, all they sold was pork shoulder and ribs. That’s all. Black King BBQ had a variety of stuff and they were established. 

But pretty soon people started checking out Speed Queen, coming over from the overflow. ‘I ain’t got time to wait,’ or ‘they’re out of meat right now. Let’s go check this out.’

And they liked my mom. She was brilliant, charming and beautiful. So people who went to go see Black King, you also wanted to go talk to pretty Betty over here at Speed Queen BBQ. 

The other thing she had going for her was really good service. It was fast. Hence, Speed Queen. And her husband, Leonard, would call her his queen. Everyone thinks it has something to do with washers and dryers, but no, it’s just that simple.

As a kid growing up in Speed Queen Bar-B-Q,I was the mixer. Cuisinart and food processors weren't a big thing then, so I was the chopper, I was the stirrer. I was the whole KitchenAid. My mom would say, ‘Come stir this. It's hot, don't stop stirring it. You got to keep it stirring. You got to keep it hot in order to let it stick. Keep stirring.’ So I would sit there and stir. That's how cooking started for me, I just learned.

My mom didn’t do stuffing, she did dressing. So mixing up the dressing, grinding it all up, mixing it up really good, making sure everything’s in there. Mixing up stuff for pies. I barely ever saw my mom measuring anything. She just would look at it, take a little taste and say, ‘Oh, that needs this.’ 

It’s amazing to me. She was always spot on. I went to culinary school, did some classes, and that’s unheard of. How do you do that? 

When it came to making mashed potatoes she knew by the way the water was boiling, or the way the starch looked in the water, that it needed more time. She knew from the smells, the taste, and the look. it is just almost like being a savant. I never got the knack like she did, because she could make anything. And she never went to school, was never trained. I’d put Speed Queen up against anybody in the country. Today, everything that’s on the menu came from my mom, my grandma, and some from my dad’s side.

By the time I was helping out at the restaurant, Speed Queen had moved to its current location. If you look at old planning documents of Milwaukee, they wanted downtown to grow and it was growing to the west. So, imminent domain came and they said, you guys can’t be here anymore. In other words the city was allowed to take private property and put it to public use. So they had to move from that first location. 

In 1965, they moved to 12th and Walnut, which they were at until 1972. And then who would’ve ever thought, imminent domain again and Speed Queen had to move again. During this time, my mom’s first husband died. Then she met my father, Arthur Gillespie, but she still had Speed Queen. My dad bought the building where we’re at now on 11th and Walnut, which was a Shell gas station. Hoping there was no chance for imminent domain and luckily it hasn’t happened again.

My mom handled the food in the kitchen and my dad was the businessman. He’s the one that made the business incorporated, made us an S-Corporation. I mean, today, we have a 401K plan. These are things that made us more structured as a business. Before it was like, well, let’s get some money out of the register, let’s go buy some meat. My dad changed that. He built a warehouse so we could store meat. His idea was to have a relationship with butchers and say, ‘hey, we’ll pay you every month. You bring us the meat. We got you covered.’

One blessing with this third location was that we are  close to the Fond du Lac highway exit, which is now the McKinley Avenue exit. When the freeway got wider, and brought the North Shore closer, it also brought Racine and Kenosha closer and business was great. It was incredible. 

I could remember being younger, hearing my parents worry about imminent domain, ‘could this happen to us again?’ But what can you do? For successful people, especially for Black people, if you want to be successful, you deal with what comes and you keep moving. It was like, all right, this is what they say we got to do, we got to do it. Let’s figure it out and let’s make our move and go ahead and do it. The perseverance and the strength I got to see from my parents, I learned to expect from myself. And with those expectations, anything’s possible…when you believe in yourself and you know that you can do it.

My father died when I was a young teenager. My brother was supposed to take over the business. But, he passed away from cancer in 2002, right after his 40th birthday. My brother was just a big, strong, handsome, awesome dude. He was a good father, a good husband and a fantastic brother.

At the time that he died I was working second shift at Speed Queen and then we had a problem with third shift, so I was working second and third shift for probably about seven years. I missed part of my children growing up. A lot fell on my shoulders then. 

From 2000 until about 2008, I pretty much lived here. By 2008 we got situated a little better and were doing pretty good. Then my mom died in 2010, so more falls on me and I’m barely 40. I’d been running the place for a while, but I wasn’t in charge of everything. I was just running day-to-day operations. I wasn’t in charge of the bills, I wasn’t in charge of the taxes. And I’ll tell you, running a business is a lot of weight. It’s scary. The beginning was impossible. No, I wasn’t ready for any of it, but If you work hard enough anything is possible, but you’ve got to believe in yourself. 

I’ll never understand how my mom could do so much. She worked tirelessly. And she was the matriarch for our family. So when she died a lot of the family split because we lost a lot of those connections. The matriarch, and patriarch, for your families, they know everyone’s secrets. That’s part of the reason they hold everything together.  She absolutely loved children. She literally bought hundreds and hundreds of kids’ coats for winter, throughout her lifetime. When she was a younger girl, she always remembered that she never had a really nice warm coat. It’s like, well, ‘your brother Bobby needs a coat, or your sister Brenda needs a coat. You’re a big girl and can make it through another winter with your coat.’ I can remember her telling me the story and she said, ‘I always had to wait because somebody else needed a coat.’ She said, ‘I never want a kid to need a coat or be cold or have to walk home, and his coat is not warm enough.’

My mom put people through college, helped them buy homes, a lot of things I had no idea about until hearing about them at her funeral. At her funeral, the testimonies I got to hear about my mom just blew me away – it was the letters, cards, phone calls and people coming to the service. Actually, we had to extend her wake another day. She said God made her to be a blessing for people. And she was. She’s a blessing for me to be my mother. 

One of my favorite memories is from when I was a teenager and working a catering job with her at Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital. We were doing a catering job with three settings for the anesthesiology department. My mom says to me, ‘Listen, listen.’ People had gone through the food line, had been talking and were settled into their food, and now that they were eating you didn’t hear anything. Just silence. All you hear is cups and plates and eating. She said, ‘This is why I do what I do. That’s why I love food so much. Look at all the happiness and how much people are enjoying our food.’ That story stuck with me and made me love food. Years later I had the same moment with my daughter. My daughter works with me now and we were doing a party at someone’s house and the room was quiet with people eating and I was like, ‘You see, look, listen.’ It was a gratifying moment. The joy, the pride, all those things. It was full circle.

My sister, Glynis Smith and I, we own Speed Queen now. We're still employees. At our pinnacle for employees, I can remember us having about 52. After Covid, we were literally down to 12. But during Covid, I had to take some of the money I inherited, and money we had in retirement funds, to put into Speed Queen to keep it running because the business wasn't going to make it. No one knew what to expect. I mean people weren't going out and we all know people that died from Covid. I know too many.

But we still run our operation the same way as we used to. We get in between 1:00 and 2:00 A.M. every day. We’re open every night except for Saturday nights, the only time our pit is out. The very first thing we do for barbecue is pork shoulder and butts, they’re the longest thing to cook. I like to cook my shoulder between 5-7 hours. I can get chicken done in about an hour and a half if I want to, but I like to be slow. The slower you cook your meat, you don’t play with it and keep flipping it, the meat enjoys all those flavors. The flavors get in every little nook and cranny. 

The average barbecue place is doing maybe six to eight cases of pork butts a week. I do seven to ten a day. We’ve literally had health department guys come in here and say, ‘you got to label your meat,’ and I say, ‘that won’t be here tomorrow.’ I had this one guy literally say, “yeah, right, whatever.” He came back and he’s like, ‘where’s the stuff from yesterday?’ I tell him, ‘it’s gone.’ And he’s like, ‘There’s no way you guys sold all that meat!’

People think the sauce is the most important part of barbecue. No. Number one for barbecue is the preparation. Reall barbecue is cooked on fire. Here at Speed Queen, we only use charcoal and hickory. Back in the day, we used a number of different kinds of woods, like hickory, apple, oak, maple. 

Speed Queen Barbecue is a fusion between your Memphis, Carolina and Kansas City. But we are a pit style barbecue and we have the largest barbecue pit in the country. Our pit is a perfect cube, about 12×12, and six and a half feet deep and that’s where the charcoal goes. And then our sauce is more on the vinegar side than the sweet side. I’ll say Carolina is sweet and sassy, we’re hot and nasty. 

We didn’t take credit cards here at Speed Queen for 57 years. We just started December of 2022, and it has changed the face of our business. My daughter, Riley Gillespie, brought the idea to me and put us on social media. My sister always really wanted to do it, too, and I fought her on it because our parents didn’t do it. They both were a hundred percent correct. I was wrong. Put that in print. 

Riley brought us online ordering now, too. I’ve been doing Uber Eats and DoorDash. I still don’t like those. The reason being is, as an owner, you lose quality control of your product the second they take it out. You have no say in what’s done or what’s going on, say if they tipped the bag upside down. But Riley is great. She’ll stay and work extra. She’ll do overtime. She’s a good worker and she’s brilliant. I’m very proud of her.

The history of this place is survival and accepting change. Sometimes, fighting change. Sometimes, not wanting to change. 

 

I love Milwaukee. I think Milwaukee is a great city and I love the fact that the people here they’re just Milwaukee. You’ll go to L.A. or New York and it’s a lot of pretension. Milwaukee’s pretty much, ‘I worked all day. I’m tired. I want to go watch my game or I want to go have a beer and see my people in the bar. I want to just chill out.’

As far as the restaurant, this place is generational. What you see is what you’re getting. There’s no pretension. We like to serve people and we want you to be happy.  I love making food and I love serving my city. And I’d like to continue to be that way for more generations.

Giovanni’s story was produced by Jimmy Guiterrez. You can learn more about Speed Queen BBQ here. 

Become part of the Love Wisconsin
Family

Speed Queen BBQ was featured on Wisconsin Foodie. The segment starts at 16:52.

Share This Post

Leave a Comment