Germantown barbecue owner remembered for kind spirit and special sauce

It’s 5:30 p.m. Dinnertime at the Rib Crib in Germantown.

A steady stream of customers is coming through the door now. The spitting rain outside is no match for this take-out joint’s secret, time-tested sauce. 

“This is the only place I get ribs,” says Michael St. Clair as he waits for a full-slab.

“That distinctive smell of charcoal,” says Bruce Barnes on his way out.

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(Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

Smoke swirls from the low-slung, brick pit Mae Williams has lovingly tended for nearly five decades, at times, with a soft melody.

On the wood-paneled walls above, hang dozens of framed photos — a who’s who of politics, sports and the stage.

Denzel Washington. Duke Ellington. A younger Marian Tasco.

And by the TV, a big blowup of Charlie Gray, a man who customers called “the mayor of Germantown Avenue” and “the jazziest dresser in Philadelphia.”

The man who built a barbecue landmark with a dream and $1,800.

A bright blue ribbon from Gray’s funeral gently rests on the left-hand corner of the photo. The 85-year-old died two weeks ago from complications following a string of strokes.

Gray’s memory, though — stitched into every fiber of this beloved hole in the wall — that’s not going anywhere. Not if his daughter Kim, now the owner, has anything to say about it.

“It’s my legacy. It’s what my father built for me and it’s for me to continue,” she says.

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Kim Gray has taken over as owner of the Rib Crib after her father’s death. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

The Rib Crib opened in 1968 while Gray was teaching biology at Lincoln High School in the Northeast.

It became his place of peace, his joy.

Wednesday through Friday Gray would drive home from school, change out out of his suit, and head to the restaurant to cook and welcome people with his big, trademark smile and handlebar mustache.

“People used to come in here, not necessarily for ribs, but to see him,” says Kim.

Once the restaurant was successful, Gray used it as a vehicle for helping others.

He handed out his fair share of free food, paid for graduation suits and covered people’s rent.

While Kim was in college, her roommate called her crying during Christmas break: she wouldn’t be returning to school. She couldn’t afford to. Gray stepped in and paid for her to finish.

“So many people have said to me. I am the man I am today because of your father. When I needed something your father was there,” says Kim.

Over the years, there have been plenty of offers to buy the business.

They’ve all been rejected.

Yes, the business is viable. But, more than anything, Kim wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and use it to serve up a side of goodwill with those world-famous ribs.

“He would say all the time, ‘if you want to continue to be blessed, you have to be a blessing to somebody else.'”

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