“I’m Joe and my wife is Deb, and we’ve been around here a long time.” The owners behind Wings Rings and Things proudly state that if you ask anyone in East Lake where to find Joe and Deb, they’ll be able to tell you. The couple, who have been married for 50 years, has been serving the area delicious meals through multiple restaurants for decades, and have no plans of slowing down.
I’d passed the restaurant many times but never seemed to venture by when they were open (I later learned they closed at 1 p.m.). Last week I finally made it in, and loved every moment of the experience. I was warmly greeted by Deb, the couple’s granddaughter Tayla Young, and Marquet Rooks, who is practically family. I was also greeted by a menu that featured pork chop sandwiches, fried fish with breakfast sides, their famous cheeseburgers, and more. I chose the tilapia with grits, eggs, and toast then sat at a booth as a steady flow of friendly faces came in and placed their usual orders.
I asked about the history of the restaurant, and was told that Joe was the person to talk to-“He has stories.” I then met a man who has been a part of our city’s restaurant scene, and the East Lake community, for more than 50 years. I learned of a family who has owned and operated three restaurants–including one in the downtown courthouse. A couple who faced trial after trial including moments that seemed like there was no way to continue forward–and persevered every time. A restaurant that feeds the community like it would feed their family–with passion.
I was introduced to Joe and Deb Henderson.
Joe jokes that he knew Deb would be the one because “when I met her she had a bank account. I said ‘Now, if she could save some of her own money, she’ll save some of mine.’” He was right, and she’s still the budgeter of the family today. “My wife, she has stuck with me the whole time,” Joe reflects on a cherished life together–much of which has been in Birmingham’s Eastern neighborhoods.
“Since I’ve been here in the world, I’ve been straight down 1st Avenue,” Joe shares, ”From working at a restaurant, then owning a business on 1st Avenue at 78th Street, then I turned on 77th Street. My whole life has been around Roebuck and East Lake, and I’ve had a good time.”
Joe began his 1st Avenue North restauranting adventures at the esteemed Pioneer restaurant in Roebuck, where he would find a passion for the restaurant business and meet lifelong friends that would provide support throughout his entrepreneurship journey. One such friend was Pioneer owner Marvin Ratliffe.
“He loved me, and he told people back in the day that they was going to end up working for me and I laughed at him” – but Ratliffe would prove correct and even be fundamental in shaping that career. “He’s dead and gone now, but he was my friend,” Joe reflects, “He kind of steered me in the right direction. He trusted me and I trusted him. I was his head maître d’. I had 17 waiters underneath me. And I was in school – 16,1 7 years old and I was the head waiter – so that’s saying something right there. You can’t be head waiter if you ain’t no good.”
Joe laughs and enthusiastically recollects impactful moments like how Pioneer sent him to learn how to be a waiter at another restaurant. He came back as the finest tray-holder you’ve ever seen in the Magic City, and a lot quicker than the restaurant expected. He remembers turning a corner and being hit in the forearm by Ratliffe while holding a fully-loaded tray, and smoothly lowering it to the amazement of his friend. Good days.
Ratliffe always told Joe to start his own business, and Joe took this advice shortly after the Pioneer switched ownership. He remembers thinking, ‘“Lord I’ll never be able to afford this stuff. I never will. Not no ice machine.’ Come to find out I rented it until I was able to buy it.” Joe and Deb opened the location, and the young entrepreneurs sooned learned the value Pioneer customers placed in their hard work over the years. They were greeted with enthusiasm from the first day, and have continued to have loyal followers ever since.
“I love them. Dead or alive, I love them,” Joe shares of his customers over the years. He used to take pictures with many of the people who ate at Joe & Deb’s, and famous faces like mayors Richard Arrington and William Bell, Fred Berry (Rerun in What’s Happening!!), and longtime Florida State coach Bobby Bowden are featured throughout. The pictures that excite him most are the regular customers whose family may be all grown now. He laughs while saying, “I guarantee you a lot of these young kids around here would say ‘That’s my grandmama, that’s my great-grandmama, that’s my uncle, that’s my daddy, and my daddy’s daddy.”
The walls of the old establishment featured these pictures, as well as a community job board where plumbers, painters, mechanics, and other specialists would post their occupations–on the condition that they would do Joe’s customers right. If they didn’t word would get back, and the name came down. Joe and Deb were a community hub, and every customer played a role.
He firmly believes that treating every person like a friend, no matter what they look like or what they are ordering, is crucial to the business.. The Hendersons have served every demographic, and has made friends across every category. “I don’t care nothing about color. I’m going to feed people right no matter what color they is. And if they came to see me I think they are my friend, and they are coming back. I do see repeat business and that’s what keeps us going. Colors don’t mean anything, I love them all.”
Through hard work and customer support, Joe and Deb soon had an incredible opportunity to move into the courthouse restaurant downtown. They now owned two establishments, with one half of the Hendersons heading each location. During this time, Joe was even able to host his parents’ 50th anniversary at his family restaurant. Both locations are now closed, with the couple working together at their third and final location on Oporto Madrid–where they have received abundant support.
Another friend in those early days was Butch Evans, of Evans Meats & Seafood fame. Butch and his father would provide the meat for the Pioneer, and Butch and “Joseppi” as he called Joe formed a quick connection. From the moment Joe and Deb stepped out faith to become entrepreneurs, Butch was their to provide support. Joe fondly recalled moments where his friend was there for him because he knew he could trust him, and proudly states that his now mostly-retired pal would still be there for him today–and vise-versa.
Joe is 71 now. It’s been a long road with thousands of obstacles, and he’s proud to be standing on the other side serving the community every day with his family. “Hard work has paid off. Hard work and treating people right,” he shares. The entrepreneurs have no plan to slow down, enjoying each day and still making new bonds.
“It’s been a good journey. Just having friends, black and white friends, that has stuck with me,” Joe shares.
I’m happy to now include myself on the list of people that have supported Joe and Deb. I let my grits go cold while being mesmerized by the story’s of Birmingham’s restaurant history laid out by Joe, and it was decided I’d come back the next week for another delicious foray into Tastetopia, USA. Two porkchops, cheese grits, cheese eggs, toast, jelly, and another great history lesson from current Birmingham restaurant royalty were on the menu. Now that’s a good day in the Magic City.
Thanks, Joe and Deb.