The history of Whitmore’s Bar-B-Q reads like a literary family saga, including marriages, divorces, sibling fallout and more. “It’s convoluted,” says Vanessa Whitmore, laughing. “We should write a book.” Throughout its 78 years, various locations have opened, closed and changed hands several times, but the popular East Side barbecue restaurant now in the hands of third-generation owners Vanessa and her three brothers Vance Sr., Virgil III and Vernon Sr. is stronger than ever. From the iconic Polish Boys (some of the earliest sold in the city) to thick fall-off-the-bone ribs, Whitmore’s has remained one of the city’s top barbecue spots even as BBQ restaurants have opened in a fervor over the last few years. With two locations and plans to begin selling bottles of its popular sauce, Vanessa Whitmore shares why her family’s business has stood the test of time.
On the Whitmore’s legacy: Our grandfather Virgil Whitmore Sr. started Whitmore’s in 1942 with my grandmother, Arelia. The original store at 12725 Kinsman Road, called Mt. Pleasant Bar-B-Q, is still open and is run by my aunt’s widower. We have two Whitmore’s stores at 20209 Harvard and 15309 Kinsman.
On serving the famous Polish Boy: People come to us for ribs and chicken, of course, but the Polish Boy is iconic. Whitmore’s started the Polish Boy Deluxe in 1987. Some people call it “the Polish Girl.” It was a collaboration between a customer named Mike and my brother Vernon. Mike could never decide what he wanted to eat. Vernon tried taking shoulder meat and putting it on the Polish Boy along with the sausage, fries, coleslaw and sauce. Mike liked it, and other people wanted to try it.
On building a future: All of our children have been involved in the business at one point. One thing Vance and I are trying to do for the next generation is focus on the sauce. Fifty years ago my grandfather said, “Selling barbeque is great, but the money to be made is in that sauce.” We want to piggyback on what he said and distribute it in the Cleveland area and online.
On why people love their barbecue: It’s our sauce. It’s a secret family recipe. Less than 10 people know the recipe. You can put our sauce on anything. If there’s sauce left in the box after dinner, customers will soak it in bread and have it like that.
On staying successful: Years ago my brother Vernon said, “Anybody can fry some chicken, but you have to put effort into treating a customer in the way that you want to be treated.”
When You Go: Whitmore’s Bar-B-Q / 20209 Harvard Ave., Warrensville Heights, 216-752-3960; 15301 Kinsman Road, Cleveland, 216-561-8722, whitmoresbbq.com
Read More: Click here to read the full list of 18 Classic Cleveland Restaurants.