Full of rich home-spun humor and a pleasant nature often found in seasoned gentlemen of the South, the outgoing entrepreneur never meets a stranger and prefers to be called Willie, even by children.
When it comes to kindness, most locals will agree with Willie’s assessment of himself when dealing with others.
“I try to treat everybody the same,” said the 68-year-old silver-haired senior who has taken his diner and turned it into one of the finest dining experiences for anyone who enjoys home cooked meals in a down-home setting.
According to Willie, his highly recommended restaurant draws new customers and a loyal base of repeat business because of its first-class Southern cooking, old country music and nostalgic decorum that whisk customers back to a time when restaurants had a rare Southern atmosphere that captured the taste of homestyle cooking.
“People kind of relate to the old stuff,” he said. “It makes them feel more at home. Also, I hire real good people, friendly people. That helps a lot in making people feel comfortable.”
Willie jokes that his classic memorabilia surrounding the inside of his restaurant is a product of finding an area that could use a good picture and “if there’s a spot open, just nail something in it,” he said with a laugh.
Raised in a family of seven sisters and one brother in Monroe County, Willie said all his siblings knew how to cook thanks to their mother.
“We had to (cook) back then,” he said. “Everyone had to do their share of everything and learn how to cook. It’s not like it is today. Back then you’d never survive if you didn’t know how to cook.”
Willie not only learned how to cook, he took his mother’s secret country recipe for battering and frying catfish and turned it into one of Bradley County’s most sizzling sensations.
His jalepeno cream soup, fresh potato salad, spicy hot or country cold slaw and rich baked beans with bacon and bell peppers added are so full of flavor they resemble Southern cooking old and new. With a menu that has just about everything, the country cook and his staff seems focused on bringing the taste of country to new heights.
Willie said he recently decided to bring back his original recipe for chicken salad after building a new kitchen in his restaurant and purchasing a new chicken cooker.
“A lot of people remember the original recipe,” he said with a smile. “This is something many people have never tasted before and the ones who have tasted it hadn’t tasted this in a long time with all the chunks of chicken in it.”
Now that he has added smoked barbeque to his menu, Willie said his original chicken salad has some real competition for favorite item on his menu.
“My barbeque is catching up real quick-like,” he said. “I smoke my own meat the original way and slow cook it. Sometimes the harder some things are to do, the better it is. We’ve got time to put the labor in it. We put quality in and that’s what I think keeps the people coming back.”
The owner of Willie’s Deli in Cleveland said being a people person who enjoys serving people good old-fashioned cooking in a down-home atmosphere has been a way of life that still brings him joy in his business and fond memories of how life use to be around the table of the best cook he ever knew — his mother.
Located at 7701 North Lee Hwy in Cleveland, Willie’s Deli opens Monday through Saturday at 11 a.m. For further information call 423-336-8008.