Montgomery Inn: Gregory family recalls how the Ribs King launched an empire

Who would have thought BBQ in Cincy?

CINCINNATI -- Ted Gregory, the Ribs King, was best known for his "larger than life," contagious personality.

If you're a Tri-State native, you've heard of Ted Gregory and Montgomery Inn . After 63 years, the family-owned restaurant now has four locations in the region and has become a staple of the Cincinnati community.

"Anything goes here and it always will," said Terry Gregory Andrews, Ted's daughter and current part-owner. The family prides Montgomery Inn's success greatly due to Ted and the tradition they've carried on.

Montgomery Inn was chosen by nearly a half-million votes as the best restaurant in Cincinnati as part of WCPO's Meal Madness . Sixty-three other area restaurants were in the original bracket.

Patrons collectively said it's the atmosphere, staff and, of course, the food that keeps them coming back year after year.

The staff, owners say, are family. The sports and political nostalgia trickled throughout the restaurants bring history to the place, and as for the food? 

"We will never compromise on the quality of our food," Gregory Andrews said.

Why barbeque in Cincinnati?

In November of 1951, Ted and Matula Gregory bought McCabe's Inn on Montgomery Road, renaming the joint Montgomery Inn. Barbeque ribs weren't on the menu in 1951; they weren't even in the works.

It wasn't until the late '50s that Montgomery Inn began to serve Matula's ribs on Friday and Saturday nights. Matula cooked a batch of ribs for Ted and his friends at the bar one evening. Ted found them to be so delicious that he requested for her to serve them the next night to patrons. The family doesn't remember exactly when she cooked the first batch of soon-to-be-famous ribs, but from that moment on, it's what drove the business.

But barbeque isn't native to this region of the country. Why did the Gregory family think the cuisine would flourish in Cincinnati?

As a Saturday "night on the town" tradition in the '50s, Ted and Matula would drive from Old Mongtomery to downtown to visit a no-longer existent restaurant that happened to serve barbeque items. The couple thought, if they were willing to drive from the suburbs to downtown, why wouldn't other people drive to the suburbs for their barbeque? No one else in the area was serving what they were.

A few short years later, Montgomery Inn began serving their fall-off-the-bone ribs every night due to increased popularity. Within the first 10 years of opening the Inn, the Gregorys had four children: Tom, Dean, Vickie and Terry, who would one day own the business.

In 1968, Dale Stevens, food critic for the Cincinnati Post, crowned Ted Gregory as "the Ribs King" although the original recipe technically belonged to Matula. Daughter Terry Gregory-Andrews said her parents had contrasting personalities; her mother was "by-the-book" and soft-spoken, whereas her father had a bold personality and "was always the life of the party."

Ted became the face and the personality that would come to represent the business. The family began to build a brand that would turn into an empire. The logo on every restaurant and product is a profile of Ted, smoking a cigar with a crown atop his head.

The following year, Johnny Cash and June Carter were visiting Cincinnati and played right in the middle of the dining room. This wasn't the first, nor last time, Montgomery Inn would attract celebrities. In 1977, Bob Hope visited Montgomery Inn and by his word of mouth, Montgomery Inn became a nationally-known name. Hope and Gregory became good friends.

Increased success called for the family to open another location. They chose a Downtown location along the Ohio River: The Boathouse. More success meant another restaurant. In 2001, the Fort Mitchell location opened.

One year later, the family lost Ted Gregory. 

Keeping it in the family

Today, the Gregory family owns and operates four locations in the Tri-State, with more than 500 employees in the three Cincinnati-area restaurants.

They have served more than 500,000 customers and since the 1994 debut of grocery times, they have sold 30 million bottles of sauce across 30 states. The famous Montgomery Inn sauces sells in various parts of the U.S., from Texas and Georgia to New York, with plans in the works for further expansion.

Every President since Ronald Reagan has either ordered Montgomery Inn ribs or have actually dined in one of the locations. Britney Spears, Cameron Diaz, Brooke Shields and even the late Elizabeth Taylor have enjoyed Cincinnati's renowned ribs.

Matula Gregory, the now-patriarch of the family, is 86 years old and still maintains some reigns of the operations, while her children assume a majority of the responsibility.

But it's not just immediate family who have helped the restaurant to become a success.

The Gregory clan credits the service of their staff for their continued progress, and said they are all part of the family.

"They're an extension of us," Terry Gregory Andrews said. "It's like the show 'Cheers,' everyone here knows your name and cares for you."

Tonya

Hunderner, 52, has been working with Montgomery Inn for 29 years. She was hired at the age of 23 and has never left.

"You're not just a number that walks through the door," Hunderner said. At an interview with WCPO, Hunderner appeared teary-eyed as she sat with the Gregory sisters, explaining that she's always "felt special" as a member of the Montgomery Inn family.

A few years ago, a kitchen employee at the Boathouse lost a family member. The employee had little money and resources, said Vickie Gregory, so their brother Dean bought him his very own suit to wear to the funeral. She said it's just one of the ways they look out for each other.

"We care about each other here," Vickie Gregory said.

And the staff cares for their customers, too, and not just during their dining experience. It's something they believe keeps their customers coming back for more. 

The Boathouse has numerous regulars. If a guest misses their regularly scheduled reservation, Hunderner will call them just to make sure they are OK.

This type of treatment, the Gregory sisters said, comes from their father.

"He would spend his last dime on people. He never knew a stranger," Vickie Gregory said.

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Photos courtesy of Montgomery Inn.

Connect with Jane Andreasik on Twitter: @jandreasik .

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