By Veronica Rodriguez | Staff Writer
PERRY HILLTOP — Wilson’s Bar-B-Q is a family restaurant. It’s where George Wilson Sr. achieved six decades of successful business. It’s where Darnella Wilson learned how to run a business and found her love for cooking. It’s where George Wilson Jr. gained his barbequing expertise. It’s where the current owner, Ira Lewis, had his first job.
And it’s prepared for a comeback. After a fire burned down the previous iteration of the restaurant in 2019, it is aiming for a reopening around the end of June, at 2615 Perrysville Ave., the owners have told The Chronicle.
But how the restaurant got to its present condition is a long story, beginning with a husband and wife.
When George Wilson Sr. and his wife, Berneal Wilson, opened their restaurant in 1961 on Pennsylvania Ave. in Manchester, Wilson’s Bar-B-Q was one of the first black-owned businesses in the area.
Wilson Sr., a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, was a Korean War veteran and a butcher by trade. When he moved to Pittsburgh he worked for Armour and Company, one of the leading meat-packing companies in the industry, for many years. Wilson Sr.’s accomplishments also include being the steward for the amalgamated meat cutter’s union, a ward chairman, a constable and a freemason.
Wilson Sr. met his wife after his move to Pittsburgh, and it was with her support and his experience, that he got everything he needed to open his own restaurant successfully. Using the family recipe that is now centuries old, he brought up an establishment that served as an employment opportunity for every member of his family to come.
The barbeque joint began building popularity at the location on Penn Avenue, but with time, the neighborhood’s environment began shifting. As a result, the family made the decision to relocate to the Mexican War Streets neighborhood of the Northside in 1970, where they gained more recognition. During its time located on 500 Taylor Ave, Wilson’s Bar-B-Q became a staple of Pittsburgh’s Northside.
The success of Wilson’s Bar-B-Q can largely be attributed to the collective effort put in by the entire family to keep it thriving. After all, it wasn’t just George Sr. and Berneal who were involved in the restaurant business: their children played a significant role too. Darnella Wilson, their daughter, remembers the time when her parents first established Wilson’s Bar-B-Q.
“My mom used to drive us every Saturday, me, my brother, and my sister, to go pick up cases of ribs,” she said with a chuckle. “ It smelt so bad.”
When asked if she had helped around when she was younger, she assured that she had always been involved somehow.
“You know what? That was everybody’s first job,” said Darnella. “You had to be at least 12 years old, but that’s what it was. It was a family business.”
Despite temporarily straying from the restaurant business, Darnella enjoyed a highly successful professional career. She served as a paramedic for 35 years and made history as not only the first black female paramedic in the city of Pittsburgh — according to an April 17, 2012 article by Fire Rescue 1 — but also the youngest, having started at only 18 years old. She has appeared in documentaries that praised her for her work in the Freedom House ambulance service, the first ambulance service in the country that implemented training standards beyond first aid for its staff and set the benchmark for paramedic training across the country.
After she retired as a nurse in 2010, Darnella went back to work at the family business. At the time, the Wilsons had been operating a secondary location in Lawrenceville. However, the changing environment that was shifting more towards a bar scene posed some chal- lenges for the survival of the establishment. Darnella’s first task was to attempt to salvage it. Unfortunately, when that proved to be unattainable, she went to work with her father at the North Taylor Avenue location.
Darnella worked alongside her father at the shop for a few years. George Wilson Sr.’s health started to diminish with his age, and as that occurred, she began taking more responsibility for the operations.
“Basically, I cooked, I cleaned, I did his books, and did his receipts,” she said. “I ended up finding help, to help me do everything I needed to do because it was getting a bit much.”
Darnella put her heart and soul into Wilson’s, and in the process, she discovered her love for cooking. After five years of managing Wilson’s, her brother George Wilson Jr. came back to take the reins so she could attend culinary school.
According to an article published in February 2019 by the Pittsburgh City Paper, George Wilson Sr.’s son, George Wilson Jr., had also been involved in the business since he can remember. He worked there on and off throughout his life, but he returned to the restaurant in 2015 when his father’s health began declining even more. Even though the circumstances brought him back, it was his love for the business and the traditional cooking style that his father implemented at Wilson’s that made the decision to stay an easy one.
During his time managing Wilson’s Bar-B-Q, Wilson Jr. also took charge of the cooking and managing with help from the crew that was brought in by his sister, and other family members. However, in October of 2018, George Wilson Sr. passed away, leaving his family with a legacy to continue and big shoes to fill. As a consequence, George Wilson Jr. became the legal owner of the establishment.
The business continued thriving after Wilson Sr.’s death. Wilson Jr. continued managing the restaurant on his own for about a year, until a fateful night in November 2019.
George Wilson Jr. was the only person working the night the building caught on fire.
The fire originated at the pit where they smoked all the meat. It’s believed some grease may have slipped into the pit, igniting the once low-burning fire to escalate rapidly out of control. Wilson Jr. was working away from the pit when he noticed it burning higher. He made an attempt to contain it, but it got out of hand too quickly to be managed.
George Wilson Jr. managed to get himself, his girlfriend and their dogs who were in the apartment above the restaurant, out of the building before the flames embraced the entire structure. In one night, they lost their home, their business, and the physical representation of the family’s legacy.
After the fire, Wilson’s Bar-B-Q and the family struggled to find a way to bring back the original Wilson’s Bar-B-Q. The building was completely destroyed and rebuilding would cost more time, money and effort than Wilson Jr. could afford.
It seemed like all hope was lost until a cousin, Ira Lewis, bought the restaurant. Lewis was familiar with the restaurant, having grown up around it and his Wilson relatives. His first involvement at the restaurant, and his first job, was as a woodcutter at the restaurant.
“Usually, you start off carrying the firewood when you’re young,” he said. “Then you’d help by getting some food ready for the customers. Eventually, I worked on the register and learned how to do a little bit of cooking.”
In time, Lewis moved on from his role in the family business to pursue other professional interests, but he did not move too far from home. Lewis attended Slippery Rock University, about an hour north of Pittsburgh, to study criminology. After acquiring his degree, he was a social worker for a year before becoming a cop.
“I got into the police force fairly early, at 23,” he said. “I was always interested in law, I used to want to be a lawyer when I was little. Then I actually wanted to go into the FBI, but you have to start out in law enforcement somewhere before you go to that level.”
Ira Lewis was not involved in the business again until it burned down in 2019, but after months passed and the restaurant’s comeback seemed to be getting further and further from reality, he felt like he had a duty to change the situation.
“My cousin tried to get it going, but I think just the way he had things set up, he wasn’t able to do so,” he said. “I kind of felt a calling to revamp it. I had the means and the opportunity. We’ve been around for over 60 years and it’d just be a shame to just let it go away.”
With Ira Lewis taking the lead, Wilson’s Bar-B-Q will be reopening this year at its new location.
In Ira’s own words “It’s a different building, but still in the same area of town. We wanted to start back where we were at first.“ Lewis confessed that when people found out he was looking for a place to reopen, many people reached out with ideas for possible locations.
“We were so known in the city that I had people wanting me to open it in different sides of town. Maybe, in the future, we can think about branching out later with different satellite spots, but I wanted to keep [the original business] going,” he said.
Lewis’s experience with reopening Wilson’s had brought him a new appreciation for his city and neighbors. He quickly found out that opening an almost brand-new business is a hard process.
“After we bought the building, I had to hire architects to get plans for the kitchen. We had to get equipment and give the space a total makeover,” he said. The hardest part, according to Lewis, is passing the checks from the city and securing all the permits.
The support he received from many people was not only surprising to Lewis but incredibly encouraging.
“Whether it be from city council members, mayors that were here or are currently here, the neighborhood community groups, or just the community itself, I’ve had a lot of support getting to where I’m at. It made it a lot easier,” he said. “I knew we were loved in the city, but that just showed me how much people appreciated us. It’s also a little more stressful because they want you to succeed, and you don’t want to disappoint.”
Lewis describes himself as a determined person, and his dedication to reopening the restaurant and preserving its origins isn’t just about the business part of Wilson’s.
“I wanted to keep something going because that’s the main thing that a lot of African American families don’t do, pass along businesses and things like that, so I wanted to keep that going.”
When asked about the family’s dynamic and the challenges that come with that, Lewis answered without hesitation, “I think family just makes it work. I wouldn’t say there is never arguing and bickering. But at the same time, everybody wants to succeed, and it’s not about one person. It’s about family and passing it down to future generations.”
Lewis explained that his want to continue the business for future generations is linked to the impact the business had on him as a child.
“That’s where I started,” he said. “That’s where I had my first job, where I figured out how to get my work ethic. Everyone needs to have that, I think.”
In that desire to not stray too much from the origins, Lewis also reassures that what customers love about the business will remain the same after the revamp.
“We’re going to have mainly the same people that were in there cooking that everybody knows,” He said. “The same recipes too, just adding a little more modern things to the business. I think it’s a nice upgrade to the business that everybody knows.”
Lewis did admit some things will change in his version of Wilson’s. He described his changes as simply staying “in tune with the times.” Lewis says they won’t stay away from advertisements, a big change from his uncle’s impressively successful word-of-mouth approach. Wilson’s Bar-B-Q is also accepting the possibility of an expansion in a few years.
“We’ve had invitations from the West End, to the East End and all these crazy places,” said Lewis. “But we would probably go somewhere where we’d do good. There are some barbeque places that are in different areas of the city and have been there for years. I don’t want to be in a situation where we’re competing with other small businesses.”
Wilson’s will also be expanding the menu with the vision to “keep up with the times.” Lewis recognized that with more people adopting vegan and vegetarian diets, providing those options would also allow them to expand their customer base.
Finally, there was one change that Lewis knew he would implement to make sure the past wouldn’t repeat itself.
“Currently we don’t have a pit inside the restaurant,” he said. “We’ll do our grilling on the outside. We’re working on getting an addition to the building where we can still do the grilling.”
He explains even more benefits of having the grill outside of the building, “one good thing about grilling outside is the smell, it casts a nice light calling for everybody.”
*Editor’s note: This article was updated on June 12 to correct the dateline.