60-Year-Old Harlem Rib Joint That Served the Beatles Fights to Stay Afloat

By Jeff Mays on December 1, 2011 6:34am | Updated on December 1, 2011 6:51am

Sherann Grinan is trying to raise $15,000 to reopen Sherman's Barbecue in Harlem which was shuttered because of health violations. Ronnie Spector took the Beatles to eat at Sherman's Barbecue.
Sherann Grinan is trying to raise $15,000 to reopen Sherman's Barbecue in Harlem which was shuttered because of health violations. Ronnie Spector took the Beatles to eat at Sherman's Barbecue.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — When The Beatles invaded the United States in 1964, Ronnie Spector of the girls group the Ronettes took them to Sherman's Barbecue in Harlem.

Its owner, the late Sherman Hibbitt, was known as the "unofficial mayor of Harlem" and had met and taken pictures with President Harry Truman and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, among others.

"I love Sherman's because it was a half a block from where I lived and my father loved it and it was open late. I loved their spaghetti," Spector told DNAinfo in an interview. "It was exciting going to Sherman's when they had the jukebox and the picture of Mr. Sherman with the presidents hanging on the wall in the 50's. It made you feel like somebody."

The chain, which opened in 1948, once had five locations in Harlem, each selling only nine items. Among them are the pork barbecue ribs, pigs feet and barbecue chicken. The restaurant's famous spaghetti is even made with barbecue sauce.

Now, 63 years after opening, Sherman's is down to one takeout-only location on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard between West 145th and 146th streets. But that location has been shuttered since August because of health violations. Hibbitt's daughter and owner Sherann Grinan is desperately trying to raise $15,000 to pay the fines and re-open what some consider to be one of Harlem's hidden treasures.

"In my heart, I'm like we have to reopen," said Grinan, 55, after ticking off the list of celebrities who had visited Sherman's.

The list includes the late Percy Sutton, who was Malcolm X's lawyer and the city's highest ever elected black official when he became Manhattan Borough President in 1966. Music greats like the Isley Brothers and the Sugar Hill Gang also ate there.

Spector's husband and manager Jonathan Greenfield told DNAinfo in an interview that she may have even brought the Rolling Stones to Sherman's.

"It's part of the folklore about Harlem, Ronnie and the English groups going to Sherman's," said Greenfield. The couple was there as recently as a year ago. "Ronnie loves Sherman's. I love Sherman's. I used to love watching her go there."

The trouble began on Aug 8. after a visit from the health department. The restaurant was cited for several critical violations, including evidence of mice and roaches, cold food being held above the required temperature and improper storage of hot foods. The health department ordered the restaurant closed.

Grinan said a burst pipe had flooded the seldom-used basement, causing problems with the motors used to power the freezers. The restaurant received an A grade with only seven violation points as recently as October 2010.

On the day of the closure, the shop had just opened when the inspector arrived and workers noticed lower water pressure and were concerned about the freezer temperature but thought it was due to the warm weather.

By then it was too late.

"I can't fault the health department. They have to abide by the rules and standards they have because they don't want anyone to get sick," said Grinan who says she has repaired the problems she was cited for but still finds herself trapped in a Catch-22.

She can't reopen until she gets a re-inspection, which, in turn, can't be scheduled until she pays the fines. But with the doors to her restaurant closed, she has no way to raise the money she needs to pay the fines. In addition, her three employees remain out of work.

"When it comes to paying the fines, if I can't operate, I will go out of business. I can't pay my rent. Con Ed doesn't want to hear it," said Grinan.

Her landlord has been understanding even though she is now four months behind. Contractors such as plumbers and exterminators have been willing to work with her because of the restaurant's longstanding relationships in Harlem — they've bought the french bread patrons dip into the spaghetti sauce from the same bakery for 50 years.

Grinan has been hosting garage sales with items donated by some of her long-time customers to raise money for the fines. So far she's only managed to raise a few hundred dollars.

"I've seen a lot of our Ma and Pa stores and restaurants go out of business due to the economy mostly. Sherman's has been a historic restaurant for many generations," said long-time customer Delores Renee.

The store has two orange health department signs out front announcing that the restaurant is closed and a sign from Grinan saying that no food or drink is being sold. Another signs tells customers that repairs are being made as rapidly as possible to reopen.

A sign that once read Sherman's Bar B. Q. has lost its first four letters and now only reads "Man's Bar B.Q." The chain once provided full sit-down service but scaled back in the 1970s when stick-ups became all too common and many others were abandoning Harlem.

If the restaurant were open, orders would be taken from behind bullet-proof plexiglass and money would be passed on a Lazy Susan. The pictures of Hibbitt with Harry Truman and Langston Hughes are in storage. The walls are white and bare. But customers don't come for the ambiance, they come for the food.

"I was praying you were open because I really wanted some ribs," said one man who came into the storefront one afternoon.

"Soon. We are trying to open soon," Grinan told the man almost apologetically.

More than the celebrities who came to the restaurant, it's the cops and late-night workers such as MTA employees, Harlem Hospital workers and taxi drivers that Grinan says she misses serving. It's the vegetarian who secretly slips in once a year because he loves the ribs.

"Our food is unique. I can't say we serve Louisiana ribs or even Midwestern style ribs. These are Harlem-style ribs," said Grinan.

That's why she just can't let the restaurant go.

Grinan has worked there for three decades, more than half her life. She has too many memories of her father, wearing a suit covered by a white apron, doing whatever needed to be done— from fixing the plumbing, working the late shift and cooking up ribs— to give the place up without a fight.

"He was dedicated to this place. This was his whole life," said Grinan. "I'm struggling to keep this open because this is something I now love."

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