WILLIAMS, EUGENE (25 Sept. 1901-19 Oct. 1958), was a prominent AFRICAN AMERICAN restaurateur known as the “Barbecue King” and, later, “Hot Sauce Williams.” He was born in Baton Rouge, La., grew up in New Orleans, and joined the Great Migration northward in 1919, spending time in Memphis, Chicago (where he worked as a barrel cooper), and Elkhart, Ind., before settling in Cleveland in 1923. Williams opened a small fish stand and expanded to sell meats. Having learned how to make barbecue from his father, who ran a stand in the “Black Storyville” section of New Orleans, Williams opened a small barbecue stand at E. 40th St. and Central Ave. in Cedar-Central (see CENTRAL [NEIGHBORHOOD]) in 1934. Soon thereafter, he bought one of the locations of Black King’s Barbecue, owned by Henry “Black King” Burkett at 4800 Central Ave., which he advertised unabashedly as “Williams’ World’s Greatest Bar-B-Q.” Williams staked his reputation on his secret hot sauce recipe, which he claimed he acquired for $12 in New Orleans during the 1933 Mardi Gras celebration. Over the next 15 years, Williams operated in several Cedar-Central locations. When the CLEVELAND METROPOLITAN HOUSING AUTHORITY acquired his restaurant to build the Carver Park Homes in 1941, Williams moved to 2177 E. 55th St. at Cedar Ave. (which doubled as his residence for a time) and secured a second location (4805 Central Ave.) across the street from his previous one. During World War II, Williams bought a 63-acre farm in SOLON, which enabled him to raise his own hogs and grow spices for his sauce rather than import them from New Orleans.

After the war, Williams opened additional locations in Detroit and Pittsburgh, as well as a short-lived jazz and R&B club called Relee Lounge at 899 E. 105th St. By 1947, he was advertising his business as Hot Sauce Williams. At the height of his career, Williams filled orders nationwide for jars of his famous sauce. Jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong was a regular purchaser. In 1954, Hot Sauce Williams moved to a single location at 2284 E. 55th St., formerly a popular tavern called the Log Cabin and, later, a restaurant named Cassie’s, across from the MAJESTIC HOTEL. After suffering the first of a series of strokes that left him increasingly debilitated, Williams sold his Detroit and Pittsburgh restaurants to focus his full attention locally. He purchased a new home in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood. He hired a woman from New Orleans to run his 4805 Central Ave. establishment as the New Orleans Creole Restaurant, but within a few months it was sold and became Abbott’s Bar-B-Q. For many years Williams made annual trips back to his hometown to partake in Mardi Gras festivities. As his health failed, Williams made some careless business decisions that, combined with escalating medical bills, depleted his fortune and ultimately claimed his restaurant by 1958. Williams, who was married to Clara Bell Godd and had one daughter, Marjorie Jean, died at Highland View Hosp., and was buried in Highland Park Cemetery.

The Hot Sauce Williams name found new life after 5 brothers—Lemaud, Alonzo, James, William, and Herbert Williams (unrelated to Eugene Williams) migrated from Tougaloo, Miss., to Cleveland in the late 1950s. The Williams brothers opened a barbecue stand on Hough Ave. in HOUGH in 1964. Reminded by their surname of Eugene Williams, customers began calling it Hot Sauce Williams, and the name stuck. The siblings ran the Hot Sauce Williams chain, which had as many as 5 locations in the 1990s. The last surviving Williams brother, Herbert, died in 2019. Family members continued to operate GLENVILLE and Lee-Harvard locations in 2019.

Mark Souther

“‘Hot Sauce’ Williams,” Ebony, vol. 5, issue. 5 (March 1950), 37–40.

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