Though there’s a location right around the corner from his hotel in Memphis, when Joe Claybon comes home, he drives all the way to Mason to eat at the original Gus’s Fried Chicken.
“The food’s good,” he says. “It’s their own recipe and nobody can imitate it. Nobody can cook chicken like they can.”
Now living in Nashville, Claybon was born and raised in Mason. It’s a cold, but sunny, afternoon in February and he and his brother Larry are sitting in a booth, watching television as they socialize with other men in the restaurant and eat some of the world-famous fried chicken and drink beer.
“Every time I come home, I come to Gus’s,” he says in between bites. “It’s original and down-home, really reminds me of the days when it was like Mama’s home cooking … and you know there’s nothing like Mama’s home cooking, right?”
What has become a world-famous eatery and promoted through shows on Food Network had humble beginnings in a blue house across the highway from the restaurant.
“It was in the ’50s somewhere, when he started cooking chicken,” says Ann Bonner. Bonner runs the Mason location and is married to Terry, one of the restaurant’s co-owners.
The restaurant, originally called Maggie’s Short Orders, was started by Napoleon “Na” Vanderbilt, grandfather to Terry Bonner and his siblings, Tarus, Renee and Tonya. All four now own the business.
“Na was in the kitchen making some spicy chicken, just for him to eat, and that’s how he came up with it.”
The history of the restaurant, hanging near the counter, suggests that the recipe was so well-liked that, even in the Jim Crow South, white people lined up at his back door for a sack of chicken and encouraged him to open a restaurant.
A carpenter, he is said to have built the restaurant himself and opened it in 1973. Ten years later, both Na and his wife died, leaving the business to his son. Gus’s officially opened in 1984.
Fast-forward three decades and you’ll find that Gus’s has become synonymous with delicious chicken. The restaurant was named for a nickname Vernon was given by members of the community.
“They used to call him ‘Gus Bully’ in the town, back when they used to ride horses around, so when he opened the restaurant, he just started calling it Gus’s.”
Vernon “Gus” Bonner and his wife Gertrude ran the business before passing it down to their children.
Franchising since 2001, Gus’s Fried Chicken has gone from the kitchen in a little blue house at the corner of Hwy. 70 and Finde Naifeh to eight locations from Memphis to Nashville and Austin, Texas. There’s talk of a New Orleans location, too.
“The first franchise location was on Front Street (in Memphis), once the first one opened, it just started blowing up and now there are several.”
For nearly 70 years, the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant has been serving fried chicken, baked beans, cole slaw and a slice of white bread. Despite its success, little has changed in the way of the restaurant’s atmosphere, and the menu hasn’t changed one bit.
“With this location and the franchises, we gotta keep it looking ragly, nothing fancy,” Bonner says. “Keeping it this way draws business.”
And it really is nothing fancy.
When you walk in, the restaurant looks run-down, with paneled walls, mismatched tables and chairs and handwritten signs on the walls.
That’s just the way Gus’s customers like it, though.
In one booth sits Joe Claybon, his brother Larry and two other men drinking sweet tea; in another are two older women who’ve driven to Mason from Somerville for a late lunch.
Bonner, wearing a navy blue Gus’s Fried Chicken t-shirt, printed leggings and boots, is an unapologetically no-nonsense character. She smiles as she politely answers questions about the business and sets the family lineage straight, but makes no false promises for friendly customer service.
“I treat you the way you treat me,” she says, noting that in the past she has been accused of favoring white people. That’s not true, she said.
It’s clear that Bonner favors helping operate the family business, speaking fondly for her mother-in-law, Gertrude, whom she credits with motivating the family to make the business successful.
Gertrude’s four children now work in Dyersburg at the batter house, where the secret batter recipe is mixed and then driven to the franchise locations.
“That way we keep our recipe and everything still tastes like the original,” she said.
Bonner said her nieces, though they are all employed elsewhere, run the restaurant on the weekends, the third generation of Gus’s and the fourth since the original restaurant. Bonner said she isn’t sure her nieces will keep it or eventually sell it.
“They may not want to cook chicken all their lives,” she says with a laugh, “but there are not that many people in our culture who can say they owned their own business handed down from their father’s father.”
There’s no doubt, their father’s father, who died on July 24, 2007, and grandfather are surely proud of the legacy they’ve left and of the way Gus’s has grown.
And, to think, it all started in that little blue house on the highway.