Smoking Up Success: Cozy Corner’s pitmaster reflects on decades of deliciousness

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A 45-year-old Memphis tradition is still smoking up some of the best barbecue in the world. Cozy Corner in North Memphis opened in 1977 as a family business, and their history-making matriarch has been credited with continuing the restaurant’s success. FOX13′s Carolyn Cerda spoke with Desiree Robinson about the pitmaster’s journey to becoming the first Black woman to be inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. She says the secret to her success started with her husband.

“My husband was an awesome cook, and I’m good, but not nearly as good as he was,” said Robinson. “I’m telling you it blew my mind. It started with him. He built it for us.”

Robinson co-founded the restaurant with her late husband, Raymond, who she credits for not only their flavorful, award-winning recipes but their long-standing relationship with their customers.

“He never met a person that didn’t fall in love with him,” said Robinson.  “He was the most likeable person I have ever met in my life. And, he had the personality. Oh my goodness, everybody loved him. People just liked him and he liked people.”

After Raymond passed in 2001, Desiree took over. In 2020, as pitmaster of Cozy Corner, she made history by becoming the first Black woman to be inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. Before 2020, the Barbecue Hall of Fame had only inducted three Black recipients -- all of whom were deceased. That made Desiree not only the first Black woman, but the first living Black person to receive the honor.

“I wish I could describe it to you,” said Robinson. “You just can’t imagine how good it makes me feel. I’m blessed because I know it’s all about how it got started and maintained.”

The restaurant is maintained to this day with a lot of helping hands. Cozy Corner isn’t just a mom-and-pop shop but a family business, now four generations in.

“Our kids don’t stay home for nap time when they’re coming up, little kids,” said Robinson. “They go to the Cozy Corner every day and go to the back and have their nap, come out and socialize with the customers. And when they’re old enough, they’ll wipe down tables, wait, whatever is age appropriate. But, everybody greets. If you work there, you better greet whoever walks through that door.”

At 85 years old that rule goes for Robinson as well, who customers from time to time can still find front and center laughing and saying hello with a big smile.

“Because I want them to know that they are at home,” said Robinson. “I want them to know that they are welcomed and I want them to know that I want them to come back. So they’re going to eat good and they’re going to be treated right.”

It’s a tradition that customers say keeps them coming back. But, it’s just one key part of this North Memphis restaurant’s reputation.

“The food is always good, the ribs, and I love their wings,” said Joyce Brown of Memphis.

“Been coming here for 22 years, know the family, food is great,” said Scott Gordy, who drives in from Arkansas. “They have the best ribs between Memphis and Nashville and St. Louis and Kansas City.”

FOX13 came across JC Watts, who was visiting the Cozy Corner for the very first time with his wife from Hammond, Louisiana.

“It’s listed as one of the top 10 barbecue restaurants in Memphis and I believe it,” said Watts. “Well worth the trip.”

Along with the accolades, and star-studded wall of celebrity customers, you’ll still find Robinson inside the restaurant at a table with her regulars, poised with grace and gratitude.

“I’m blessed,” said Robinson. “I’ve got a wonderful family, I really do. Four generations of family. We work together in harmony and I just thank God for that.”