Everyone called her “Mama B.”
Even her employees, and the Rev. Billy Graham and thousands of other customers who enjoyed Lyttle Bridges’ pit-cooked barbecue with her homemade sauce, barbecue slaw and hushpuppies, and some fries and baked beans.
At Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, everyone was family to its matriarch, daughter Debbie Bridges-Webb told The Charlotte Observer.
And that’s a big reason why the family-run restaurant on East Dixon Boulevard (U.S. 74) has lasted 76 years, she said.
“Family,” Bridges-Webb said. “That’s it in a nutshell.”
“This was her baby,” Bridges-Webb said of her mom, who died in 2008 at age 91. “She was here at 8 o’clock in the morning, and she was the last one out the door at 9 o’clock at night. And it was her way or the highway. Simple as that.”
On Saturday night, Lyttle Bridges, later Lyttle Bridges Cabaniss, will be inducted posthumously into the Barbecue Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Missouri, an honor her family never expected, Bridges-Webb said.
Lyttle Bridges is considered to be the first woman barbecue entrepreneur in North Carolina, “perfecting the recipes that have made the restaurant a ‘national standard for pork barbecue,” Hall of Fame officials said in announcing her selection as a 2021 inductee.
Barbecue ‘Shelby style’
Lyttle Bridges and her husband, Elmer “Red“ Bridges, developed a style of North Carolina barbecue slaw and sauce all their own, a cross between Western and Eastern styles, with a ketchup-vinegar base, that the family calls “Shelby style.”
The secret recipes for the slaw, sauce and hushpuppies, handwritten by Lyttle Bridges, remain in a safe, granddaughter Natalie Ramsey said. “We treasure that,” Ramsey said of the recipes being in her grandmother’s writing.
Ramsey, 40, and her brother, Chase Webb, 36, run the restaurant now — an around-the-clock operation with 30 employees, many who’ve worked there for decades.
Country music legend Patty Loveless held various jobs at Bridges in the 1980s, just before hitting it big in Nashville.
“On her lunch break, she would take her guitar and go down to the wood pile and pick music and sing,” Natalie Ramsey said.
Billy Graham became a close family friend through his many stops at the restaurant, she said.
His favorite was the BBQ Plate — barbecue, barbecue slaw, baked beans, french fries and hushpuppies, she said.
They mingled among the regulars, whose families have enjoyed the barbecue for generations.
“My kids grew up at this counter,” Jim Holland, 72, said. His family has visited since the early 1980s.
Kecia Orders, 41, has devoured the barbecue since she was 5.
“And Lord have mercy, the hushpuppies,” the best anywhere, she said.
A worker slow-cooks the pork shoulders overnight over hickory and oak, in a pit fashioned exactly like the one their grandparents used, Natalie Ramsey and Chase Webb said. The meat is incredibly flavorful and tender as a result.
“A lot of people cook it on gas,” Ramsey said. “We still pit-cook, every night, so you’re going to get that fresh meat every single day.”
The restaurant goes through 36 shoulders, or 280 pounds to 300 pounds of meat “on a slow day,” Chase Webb said.
On a Saturday? 90 shoulders, or 720 pounds, he said.
Another worker chops the meat all day, while others prepare the sauce and slaw and hush puppies.
Everything’s made the same way “Red” and Lyttle Bridges did in 1946, when they opened their first restaurant, Dedmon’s Barbecue, in the old Dedmon’s Livestock Barn on N.C. 18, the family said.
“It’s been 76 years, and we’re still pit-cookin’ our barbecue the same way we did back then,” Ramsey said. “The same recipes we used then, we’re still using now. My grandmother’s motto was, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ and so we have listened to that, and we continue to, this day, use the same recipes. And we never want to change it.”
‘Money in textiles’
Lyttle Bridges had eight brothers and sisters, according to her family. Her father died when she was 8.
She finished 3rd grade, quit school and worked to support her family, they said. She worked several years in a textile mill before meeting Elmer “Red” Bridges on a blind date. They married in 1932.
Chase Webb smiled recalling how his grandmother asked her mill boss to go 50-50 with her and her husband in their restaurant venture.
“All the money is in textiles,” Chase Webb said his grandmother’s boss replied. “A restaurant would never make it.”
Opening a restaurant was “Red” Bridges’ dream, and he knew a thing or two about barbecue, having trained with Warner Stamey, “considered the godfather of Lexington-style barbecue,” according to the Barbecue Hall of Fame.
Bridges also was the first restaurant to serve SunDrop soda, Natalie Ramsey said.
The couple moved their restaurant to its present site on U.S. 74 in 1953, “a year before my mom was born,” Chase Webb said. The restaurant has 21 tables and eight counter seats.
‘A red-headed ball of fire’
Natalie Ramsey said her grandmother perched in a spot between the counter and kitchen. She could see every part of the restaurant from there, to make sure everything ran smoothly. And she’d let you know it if it wasn’t, Ramsey said.
Ramsey described her grandmother as “a red-headed ball of fire. She loved every person like they were her family, but she had a temper. You walked in that door, and you did your job, but she would love and kiss you goodbye.
“She worked 12 hours a day, sun up, sun down,” Ramsey said. There’s not anybody like her.”
Her grandmother retired in 1980, handing the restaurant to her daughter, Ramsey said. With Ramsey, Bridges is in its third-generation of ownership by a woman in the family.
“It’s such an honor to live on the legacy of what my grandmother and grandfather started,” Natalie Ramsey said.
“I’ve been to Hawaii,” she said. “When I was in Hawaii, I had on my (Bridges) Barbecue T-shirt, and somebody said, ‘Is that Shelby, North Carolina, Bridges Barbecue?’
“Oh my God, yes!” she replied.
Natalie Ramsey left late this week for Kansas City with her brother and mom.
When the family takes the stage to accept the induction award on behalf of her mom, Bridges-Webb said, she’ll feel “success and love.”
“She’s looking down smiling, her and Daddy both,” she said.