It’s All Gravy, Baby

For Jack Pirtle’s Mary Howard, work is about so much more than food 

Photography by Brandon Dill

When you think of Memphis fried chicken, what place comes to mind? If it’s not Jack Pirtle’s Chicken, then you might want to think again. Jack Pirtle’s has been a Memphis staple since the 1950s. They have been serving up fried chicken, fried gizzards and liver, and some of the best  biscuits and gravy this side of the Mississippi.

But food isn’t the only thing that makes a restaurant great—it’s also the people. 

Meet Jack Pirtle’s manager Mary Howard. She radiates positivity and organization. She is the perfect solution to a tough day and so very humble. Mary has invested a lot of years at Jack Pirtle’s. And to hear her tell it, it’s all gravy, baby! 

Before working at Jack Pirtle’s, Mary promised herself that she would never work in another fast food restaurant. “I was working at a restaurant that had gotten robbed, so I quit and started driving a school bus,” recalls Mary. “But then a friend came to me and said I should work at Jack Pirtle’s. She said that the Pirtles were good people to work for.”

So it was done. Mary started working for Jack Pirtle’s Chicken in 1994. “I started working at the one on Highland. Then I moved to Mt. Moriah. And I’ve been at this location, Elvis Presley, for the longest,” she reminisces. 

A typical day for Mary starts at “10 minutes to 8 a.m.,” she says. “I come in and start setting everything up.” 

Between 8 and 9 a.m., another cook and the cashiers arrive. “We all work at Jack Pirtle’s. I’m a manager and I work [cook and cashier] too. I’m a working manager.” 

And then they begin cooking. Of course, they have a secret recipe, but Mary isn’t spilling the beans—or the seasoning blend. 

Working for a single company is not the norm in the food and beverage industry. But Mary has been with Jack Pirtle’s for 29 years and has no plans to stop anytime soon. “They’re good people to work for,” Mary says. “They don’t hassle you. They’re about the rules, and you just gotta follow the rules. Plus, they’re friendly and care about the underdogs. You can just laugh and talk with them like any ol’ friend. Every year they take me out for my birthday. Now, how many employers do you know do that?”

And the love is mutual. “Mary is truly one of the most remarkable ladies we have ever known,” says Tawanda Pirtle, who owns Jack Pirtle’s Chicken with her husband, Cordell. “Her devotion to her family, her friends, and to her Jack Pirtle’s work family is something that has always been amazing to us.

She is a fantastic leader who has always performed her job at the top level in every way.

She is a manager who is loved and respected at the highest degree by her customers and her team members. Cordell and I love and appreciate her so very much, and it’s truly an honor to have her as part of our Jack Pirtle’s family and even more of an honor to call her our friend.” 

In addition to having a positive relationship with her employers, Mary also enjoys the work itself. “There’s a rush when you know that you’re waiting on somebody and you can make them happy,” she says. “It’s nice to know when you’ve done your best with something.”

Now, not all days are as sweet as Jack Pirtle’s sweet tea. Some days are hard, especially when someone quits. “I have some employees that’s been working for us for 13 to 14 years. And some employees just quit. But then they call me asking me if they can come back and work for Jack Pirtle’s. And I say to them, ‘You know you quit, so why did you quit?’” says Mary. “But, of course, we hire them back. Ain’t no point in being ugly towards people.” 

To be honest, in her 29 years, Mary has thought about quitting too. “I tell them that I’m gonna quit, sit on my porch, and dip snuff. Then they say, ‘But you don’t dip snuff!’ I tell them, ‘Maybe I’ll start!’” she laughs, recalling this conversation. But, of course, she doesn’t quit.

Mary has developed a lot of friendships over the years.

“I have customers that I’ve known for a long time, almost as long as I’ve been working here. So now, they honestly feel like family,” she says.

There’s one customer who stands out in her mind. “There was a lady in the drive-thru, and she was being real snappy and short,” says Mary. “When she came up to the window, I told her, ‘Whatever it is that’s bothering you, just pray about it.’ She drove off real fast. About two to three days later, she walks into the building. She said that things weren’t good at home, and she started crying. She told me that what I said to her that day made her realize that there’s a God. She’s now a regular customer and a friend.”

You never truly know the impact you have on those around you. A smile and kind words can make someone feel seen when the world thinks they’re invisible. But what do you do when you have a customer who refuses to accept your rays of sunshine? Mary says, “I ask them to tell me what is it I can do to make them feel better. They’re usually shocked by my question. But I just have patience with them. Remember, when the day is over, this is your job and you don’t have to go home with them when you leave.” 

Next time you find yourself in need of a ray of sunshine and some fine chicken, get yourself over to Elvis Presley Boulevard. You’ll find the chicken you crave—and if you’re lucky, you just might meet Mary too.

4349 Elvis Presley Boulevard

Patricia Lockhart is a native Memphian who loves to read, write, cook, and eat. Her days are filled with laughter with her four kids and charming husband. By day, she’s a school librarian and a writer, but by night—she’s asleep. @memphisismyboyfriend

Brandon Dill has found a home in Memphis. When not planning road trips with his wife or building blanket forts with his two daughters, he likes to take pictures. His photos have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and others. @bdillphoto