Friday, July 5, 2024

Broken Chain: Coleman's Bar-B-Q, No. 43 (Hernando) and No. 9 (Senatobia)

Today's post highlights DeSoto and Tate County, MS, retail.

Broken Chain: A business which, at some point in its history, had multiple, similarly-functioning, physical locations where a customer could purchase goods and/or services, and which presently has a significantly diminished presence and/or value as a brand compared to the same brand in its heyday. - Zap Actionsdower

In case you missed it, my entry for the month of June was published not here, but as a guest post over at the Sing Oil Blog, where I covered a former Sing Oil station in Brandon, MS, and also shared some hodgepodge but nevertheless interesting details and photos on the former Jitney Jungle chain of grocery stores and one of its banners, Jitney Premier. That Sing station is now operating as a Shell, and as I mentioned in that post, I am extremely brand loyal to Shell gasoline. In fact, it is precisely through its neighboring location to the Hernando Shell station I grew up going to that I am familiar with the subject of today's post: Coleman's Bar-B-Q.

Unfortunately, despite living in Hernando for 18 years before Coleman's closure in 2020, I don't recall ever having eaten at the barbecue restaurant; that said, it almost feels as if I wasn't meant to. Now, don't misinterpret that statement: I am not saying I would have been unwelcome, as that is categorically untrue. Rather, it's just that Coleman's had been around in Hernando far longer than I had, and felt like part of the fabric of the town... a regular crowd of locals met there every morning and chatted over coffee; politicians often stopped there as part of their campaign trails. The atmosphere surrounding the restaurant made it feel like an institution from days gone by that had outlasted all of its peers, and for me to interrupt or disturb that legacy felt almost disrespectful or out of place. So, yes, I never ate at the Hernando location; but regardless, this post is still dedicated to its memory and to the history of Coleman's Bar-B-Q as a whole.

A campaign stop at the Hernando Coleman's, 2008. Courtesy DeSoto Times-Tribune

Hernando Coleman's, 2016, as viewed from the Shell station next door


Although others may not have associated it with the term "broken chain," I am far from the first person online to blog about the history of Coleman's Bar-B-Q. As a matter of fact, most of my sources for this post did their own research on the chain's history, and moreover have personal connections to Coleman's locations of the past; please understand that I am not trying to pass any of their work off as my own! Rather, I simply feel Coleman's was an important, memorable part of the Mid-South retail scene, and therefore I think it is important to share the chain's story here. Other posts I have seen about Coleman's across the internet and social media usually result in a lot of interaction from folks sharing their own memories of former Coleman's restaurants, so my hope is that this post similarly finds those readers looking to reminisce and sparks warm memories and discussions.

The two most informative sources I found are the "Memphis Barbecue Restaurants Ghost Pit Chronicles" blog on Tumblr, and the book Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce & Soul by Craig David Meek, which itself references the aforementioned Ghost Pit Chronicles written by Richard McFalls. According to McFalls, A.B. Coleman, a native of Coldwater, MS, first entered the realm of barbecue in the late 1950s, when he began working at Tops Bar-B-Q -- today a still-extant Memphis chain, at that time only just beginning. In 1961, Coleman branched out on his own and opened up Tasty Bar-B-Q. A year later, he and William Loeb joined forces, and so began the Loeb's Tasty Bar-B-Q chain (later just "Loeb's").

According to Meek's book, Loeb's expanded rapidly during the 1960s. In one 36-month span during the decade, a jaw-dropping 40 locations were opened. Coleman did not stay with Loeb's throughout this entire expansion, however. In summer 1965, Loeb's opened its 25th restaurant, and by the end of that same year, Loeb bought out the contracts of Coleman (president and general manager), Coleman's wife (secretary/treasurer), and Peter Moss (vice president). McFalls describes the parting as "less than amicable," and Moss himself is quoted in Meek's book as saying the Loeb-Coleman partnership failed because "They were too busy trying to screw each other over." Indeed, as just one example, in 1972 Coleman was charged with tax evasion -- after Loeb reported him to the IRS!

Undeterred by the severing of their partnership, A.B. Coleman set out on his own to create a new chain of restaurants, Coleman's Bar-B-Q. The first location opened in Tupelo, MS, in 1966, and like Loeb's, Coleman's grew rapidly through franchising. By the end of 1967, there were 20 locations in existence, and at its peak the chain reached somewhere between 160 and 190 locations (accounts vary, with 174, 176, and 186 being the most commonly reported figures) to become "the South's largest barbecue chain," as once reported by A.B.'s great nephew, "with restaurants ranging from Sikeston, MO, to Pensacola, FL, to Amarillo, TX." 

Early ad celebrating 20 locations, with a list of all 20. Circa 1967. Courtesy Ghost Pit Chronicles

Photo from an ad for the Sikeston, MO, location, May 9, 1974. Courtesy

Meek's book notes that these widespread locations "left behind a large number of buildings equipped with old-fashioned brick-and-steel charcoal pits. Some are still empty; some have been converted to other uses, ranging from thrift shops to convenience stores; and some have been reborn as mom-and-pop barbecue joints." In a 2017 post on his blog "Marie, Let's Eat!", author Grant G. says despite all Coleman's restaurants bearing the same design, that design is not particularly distinctive -- he calls the restaurants "boring rectangles" -- meaning that photos of such restaurants, unknowingly, "could be anywhere, even on our blog." I think it's fair to say that this same sentiment expands from pictures to include the physical structures of the many unassuming former Coleman's buildings scattered throughout the south, as well.

Coleman's (now closed), 5175 Millbranch, Whitehaven. Now closed. Courtesy Ghost Pit Chronicles

Captain John's Bar-B-Q, former Coleman's, Collierville, TN. Courtesy Ghost Pit Chronicles

Plaza BBQ (now closed), former Coleman's, Guin, AL. Courtesy Marie, Let's Eat!

Returning to the history of the chain, Meek notes that, like Loeb's, the Coleman's Bar-B-Q chain "fell apart after expanding too fast." The franchise model appears to have been the root of the chain's demise. Reports vary somewhat on the exact issue. A comment on that same "Marie, Let's Eat!" post from A.B. Coleman's granddaughter stipulates, "Due to the way the contracts were written, he lost all of the stores. ... It is a great story and a great business case with missed opportunities to expand globally." A 2019 Facebook post from a friend of Gene Coleman, who operated the Whitehaven location at 5175 Millbranch (the third-to-last surviving Coleman's, since closed), seems to support this account, noting, "Once upon a time, these franchises were everywhere. However, the original franchise contracts were for 25 years. After that period, a franchisee was allowed to stop paying fees and take his store private. So gradually they all became 'Fred’s BBQ,' 'Hound Dog BBQ,' etc. Eventually the only stores which remained as Coleman's BBQ were the family-owned ones in Whitehaven, Hernando, and Senatobia."

A different retelling, however, places the blame not on franchise contracts expiring, but on franchisees rebelling: "Coleman's franchises stopped paying their fees. He then did not provide services to his franchises he was contracted to provide. He pulled the plug when he spent more money on lawyers attempting to collect than he would have received. The frachisees were directed to stop using the name and cease using the recipes." Either way, it would seem -- as with many stories of broken chains -- that the franchise model was, in many ways, responsible just as much for Coleman's rapid expansion as for its equally-as-rapid demise. As mentioned above, following Whitehaven's closure, two family-owned locations in North MS were the final holdouts -- and now, there is only one.


The Hernando, MS, Coleman's Bar-B-Q, located at 554 E Commerce Street and coming in at No. 43 in the chain, was opened in May 1971 by Carl and Mae Ferguson. Mae was founder A.B. Coleman's sister. Mae eventually ran the business solo for many years after Carl's passing, and after 23 years transferred ownership to her son, Bobby Ferguson, and his wife Becky. In a 2016 DeSoto Times-Tribune article celebrating the restaurant's anniversary, Becky echoes the sentiment I mentioned at the top of this post: "It's been family-owned for 45 years," Ferguson said. "It's an institution. We have our regulars who come in every day and socialize."

Becky Ferguson at the Hernando Coleman's, 2016. Courtesy DeSoto Times-Tribune

Close-up of the menu board. Courtesy My Delta World

Road sign facing Commerce Street (formerly Holly Springs Road). Courtesy LoopNet

Side view of the Hernando Coleman's showing the BBQ pit chimney. Courtesy Ghost Pit Chronicles

The restaurant continued onward for another four years, ultimately coming to a halt at the same time as the rest of the world in spring 2020, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. My understanding is that retirement was already in Bobby and Becky's sights anyhow, so although the closure of the restaurant was probably more sudden than they had intended, Coleman's No. 43 never reopened. The sale of the property was closed at the end of July 2020, and the below two-full-page spread commemorating Coleman's was published in the following August 6, 2020, edition of the DeSoto-Times Tribune. I went out and bought a copy of the paper that day, and actually scanned it for this post, but these digital screenshots are probably a bit clearer. You can also read the article in full online here; I strongly encourage you to check it out.

Courtesy DeSoto Times-Tribune

Courtesy DeSoto Times-Tribune

Noting that it had been closed since the lockdowns began and hadn't reopened, I took some pictures of the Coleman's building on April 24, 2020. I can't remember if I knew yet at the time that the restaurant would never open again. (The menu board pic at the bottom isn't mine, but felt fitting for this circumstance.)

Courtesy Zomato

After the property sale closed and the newspaper article ran, short work was made of sign removal from the building. These pictures were taken on August 8, 2020. You will see in these pictures the neighboring Trustmark Bank building: when the Fergusons decided they were going to retire, they reached out to see if Trustmark was interested in the property. Trustmark agreed to the purchase with the intention of constructing a new, larger branch that would consolidate its Hwy 51 full-service facility with the drive-thru-only location currently adjacent to Coleman's. 

November 2020

Letters were distributed to Trustmark customers noting the forthcoming temporary closure and construction. After what I can only assume were pandemic-related supply chain delays, work began in earnest in the fall of 2021 with the demolition of the existing Coleman's and Trustmark structures. As of this writing, both the reopened Commerce Street branch and the Hwy 51 branch continue to coexist. Prior to the rebuild, the drive-thru-only Trustmark was closed every lunch hour because volume was not high enough to warrant two branches in Hernando; I'm not sure whether this has changed, or if the Hwy 51 branch is still targeted for eventual closure.

Existing Trustmark building, August 21, 2021 (six days before closing)

Demolition, October 2021. Courtesy DeSoto Times-Tribune

Architectural rendering. Courtesy DeSoto Times-Tribune

1985 plat. Courtesy DeSoto County Public Records

2020 sale plat. Courtesy DeSoto County Public Records

The last two images above show a site plat from 1985, when Coleman's neighbor, then The Hernando Bank, sold a portion of the rear of their property to Coleman's to increase Coleman's parking, followed by the site plat from the sale in 2020 (notice the addition of the rear parking lot on this plat). At 9,000 square feet, the new Trustmark Bank building joining both lots was completed in January 2023, designed by Wier Boerner Allin, an architectural firm in Jackson, MS (where Trustmark is headquartered). Some photos below showcase the property, including an old safe from The Hernando Bank... and a photo on the wall of Coleman's Bar-B-Q No. 43.

Completed Trustmark Bank facility. Courtesy WBA

Drive-thru lanes at rear of property. Courtesy WBA

Interior main lobby. Courtesy WBA

Old safe from The Hernando Bank. Courtesy WBA

Offices and photo of Coleman's on the wall. Courtesy WBA


Following Hernando's closure, there is now just one Coleman's Bar-B-Q remaining, and it's just a 15-minute drive away: No. 9, located in Senatobia, MS. As you can tell from the store number, the Senatobia Coleman's predates Hernando, having opened in August 1966, the very same year the chain began. As noted in the below newspaper clipping, founder A.B. Coleman opened the Senatobia store himself, before selling it to his brother, Bob, in April 1967. Today, the Senatobia location remains open at the hand of Bob's daughter, Kim Coleman, who since November 2011 has not only actively maintained the restaurant but also a popular Facebook page for it. Many posts of Coleman's Bar-B-Q memories, reflections, and travelers rediscovering the Senatobia location are shared on the page. The Senatobia Coleman's even appears in a Getty Images stock image!

Courtesy Facebook

Courtesy Getty Images

Having already missed out on the Hernando location, visiting the Senatobia location before moving from north to central MS in August 2021 was a very important goal of mine. My visit on July 19, 2021, cut it pretty close, but I made it nonetheless.

Outside, the building looks just like all those other recognizable "boring rectangles" with its prominent yellow signage, large plentiful windows, and brick construction. The only exception here compared to the others is the presence of a neighboring space leased out to a different business (here, a Domino's Pizza franchise). 

The restaurant was, as expected, crowded at lunchtime; I returned later in the day to get some more photos of the exterior after it had closed for the day (hence why most of my shots show an empty parking lot). Currently, the hours are weekdays 7:30AM-3PM, and Saturdays 7:30-2. The Senatobia Coleman's is located at 312 E Main Street.

Image source unknown

Heading inside, here's my shot of the ordering counter, followed by a better one I found online. Behind the counter is the restaurant's kitchen. You can see the restaurant is well-maintained and has an old-school vibe (as well as a lot of pig-themed decor).

A shot of the menu shows the restaurant's offerings. I was here with my mom on this visit, and we split our sandwiches: one bologna with cheese, one regular bar-b-q with cole slaw (the classic). Our side items include baked beans, potato salad, and sweet potato fries.

Alas, I am a retail blogger, not a food writer, so if you're here looking for descriptions of my meal, you're out of luck. In fact, this visit was so long ago now that I am struggling to remember it at all. I do know the food was good -- I'd remember if it was anything but. If nothing else, the food sure looks delicious, and staring at it is making me very hungry... maybe I need to stop in again next time I'm up by Senatobia, and refresh my memory.

More pig decor on the tables (cute salt and pepper shaker holder!), and more wood paneling throughout the dining room. Horse-riding images line the far wall, and out of view next to the claw machine is a wall dedicated to more family photos and a custom reproduction of the Coleman's logo. During 2020, one of the restaurant's Facebook posts showed a new addition to the claw machine: rolls of toilet paper!

Back outside, we can see that the pit used for barbecuing is not located on the side of the building, but rather, in the back (perhaps due to the co-tenant arrangement with Domino's, and/or other property layout constraints). I am by no means a barbecue expert, but my understanding from my research for this post is that pit barbecuing like Coleman's, Loeb's, and others did is considerably less common these days. On the flip side, clearly it was popular and perhaps even relatively new back in the 1960s when these chains took off, given how prominently "Hot Pit" was featured on the Coleman's signage.

Looking back up towards Main Street and the road sign for Coleman's at the edge of the property. It would have been neat to be here late enough in the day to see the pointing arrow neon on top of the sign turned on (assuming it is still turned on at night -- since the restaurant is only open for breakfast and lunch, perhaps the sign isn't lit up in the evenings anymore). Either way, we can imagine it with this really awesome rendering of the sign and the building created as part of a "Senatobia Landmarks" series by local graphic design artist Kevin Pitts.

Last but not least, one final shot of the sole surviving Coleman's Bar-B-Q restaurant, No. 9 in Senatobia, MS. This broken chain seems to have touched a lot of people during its time throughout the south, and the family involvement at the last remaining locations seems only to have strengthened those strong connections with locals and regular customers. I may never have been part of said crowd myself, but I'm glad I got to experience the Senatobia location nonetheless. If you have any memories of Coleman's Bar-B-Q in your town, please don't hesitate to email or leave a comment below! Until next time and as always, thanks for reading, and have fun exploring the retail world wherever you are :)

Retail Retell