When Uncle Lou’s Fried Chicken opened on April 4, 2001, proprietor Louis Martin never dreamed it would reach national prominence on the Food Network.
Now the new series “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives is filming a segment on the popular fried chicken eatery via Zoom, the digital meeting platform.
“I don’t guess I’ll ever get used to being a so-called celebrity,” said Martin. “For years, I was struggling just to keep the doors open. Two months before my first appearance on the Food Network in 2008, I almost closed the doors.”
Martin has one more session to film for the segment, and the producers will then give him an airing date for the show. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is preventing the network from filming at the restaurant at 3633 Millbranch Rd., Martin is thrilled about the upcoming episode.
“The virus isn’t stopping anything,” Martin said. “We started filming on Zoom about 14 or 15 days ago. This is new for me, but I’m just so grateful to be included on Chef Fieri’s new show.
Meanwhile in the age of COVID-19, Martin has learned anew never to “count your chickens before they hatch.”
“Now, I’m just saying we plan to re-open our dining area on June 1,” said Martin.
Uncle Lou’s has been serving orders through curbside and delivery, only, since restaurants were ordered to close down dining rooms to control Covid-19 community spread.
“Anything can happen with this coronavirus. There could be another breakout over the weekend, and we’re right back at square one. I’ll just put it like this: If nothing happens between now and then, we will open the inside for dining on Monday.”
Even partially closed, Uncle Lou’s has been thriving with a steady stream of cars wheeling in customers ordering take-out and picking up orders. For many, the eatery long has been the destination point for good, Southern Fried Chicken. His earlier appearance on the Food Network helped foster that reputation.
“(P)eople come here every year from Australia and England,” said Martin. “Some come here every time they get to Memphis. I will always be grateful.”
Martin launched his restaurant with very little money, his great grandmother’s recipe and a dream. Uncle Lou’s was his fifth attempt at running a successful restaurant.
“Every time I had to close, I learned some valuable lessons from that experience,” he said. “I learned what not to do next time, because there was definitely going to be a ‘next time.’ I’m going to keep going until I can’t go any more. That’s just the kind of fella I am.”
Martin has been asked “about a million times” what the secret is to his chicken.
The recipe came from his great-grandmother, Rosie Gillespie, who passed the recipe to Martin’s mother.
“My mother was just a teenager when she got the recipe,” Martin said. “Whether my great-grandmother made it up herself or it was passed down to her, I don’t really know. My great-grandmother was from Mississippi. Her people were from Mississippi. I don’t know much more than that.”
His mother died in 2014. She wrote the family history down for Martin and his brother when they were teenagers. That was 30 years ago and that history has been lost.
The “breading” over the chicken holds the secret to its unique flavor, said Martin. The sauce is his own invention.
A native Memphian, Martin is a 1977 graduate of Hamilton High School, where he took two years of a then-new vocational course called, “Commercial Food.”
That was his only culinary training.