Thursday, May 30, 2024

Long Beach Lost: The cringey and strange tale of how Lucille’s Smokehouse created a fictitious Black woman for their brand


Editor’s note: This series first appeared on Longbeachize in 2017 and 2018; some articles have been republished in their entirety, partially altered, or otherwise new. For the full archive, click here.

Without a word during May of 2020, just as the Black Lives Matter protests were ramping up for a full surge come the following month, Lucille’s Smokehouse & BBQ—the Long Beach-birthed barbecue joint from the Hofman Hospitality Group that opened its first location off of Carson in the Town Center complex in 1999—suddenly removed the backstory it had long peddled as the restaurant’s origin story.

It told of the story of Lucille Buchanan, a native of Greenville, South Carolina, who grew up eating in her Grandma’s lunch shack, a “tiny little nothing of a place on a back road in a small town way outside of Greenville” that many claimed was possibly the best barbecue in the South.

The Lucille Buchanan story continues

“But Lucille didn’t know any different,” the story continued, paired with a grainy black-and-white photo of what was claimed to be Lucille Buchanan. “She hadn’t traveled more than about 30 miles in any direction…”

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The story becomes wildly specific: “As soon as Lucille was tall enough to clear tables, Granny put her to work during summers and on weekends. She shared her secrets with Lucille on how to make the best barbecue. Special spice rubs and savory wet ‘mops’ and sauces Lucille had to swear she’d never share with a soul. Most of all, she showed Lucille how to cook barbecue nice and slow, for hours on end in the gentle smoke of hickory wood, until the meat became sweet and succulent and so tender it would fall off the bone if you so much as looked at it.

“When Lucille married Joe before World War II and followed him out to the naval yards in Long Beach, California, she discovered that the folks back home were right: Granny’s barbecue was the best. She and Joe couldn’t find anything like it anywhere from San Diego to Santa Barbara and beyond.”

Wait—Lucille didn’t actually exist?

The glaring thing? All of this is entirely fictitious, including Lucille herself, the company appropriating a picture of an unknown person that clearly existed at some time.

“The idea was to create a loving family that crafted these recipes from scratch and held onto them,” Brad Hofman, President of Hofman Hospitality Group, told the Orange County Register on Jan. 8, 2013.

According to an interview with the Orange County Register in 2013, Hofman Hospitality Group President Brad Hofman said that the main thrust of the creation of Lucille Buchanan and her beau Joe was to showcase a “loving family that crafted these recipes from scratch and held on to them.”

Apparently unhindered by the idea that they were exploiting a story from which they had literally no part of, along with using someone’s physical identity, the details and overall themes behind it were not just crafted by the Hofmans. Jeff Hatch of Hatch Design in Costa Mesa—a firm which specializes in branding and restaurant spaces—was brought on to create the story.

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How the story first appeared on Lucille’s website in June of 2004. Courtesy of Web.Archive.Org.

“I did a lot of research on juke joints and Southern plantations,” Hatch told the Restaurant Development & Design magazine in 2013. “The objective has always been to celebrate the South and Southern hospitality the way Lucille might. Initially, we did plantation-style architecture, meaning a building that’s raised off the ground on pillars. That was very common in the South, so we chose a comfortable, eclectic, 1940s-style plantation house theme—Lucille’s house, if you will—for the brand’s prototype.”

People started to notice—and even more, care

On top of the attachment to an entirely inauthentic brand identity, the romanticized take on the South, including plantation-style homes, is something no parties involved felt was either inappropriate or bluntly misleading.

Though some restaurant reviewers did.

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The story as it last appeared on Lucille’s website in May of 2020. Courtesy of Web.Archive.Org.

In a review for The Mercury News in 2013 after Lucille’s opened a location in Concord, food writer Chrissa Ventrelle’s heartfelt note toward the end shows the dismay of peddling a portrait of someone so richly created yet entirely fictitious.

“The homespun tale of Lucille Buchanan is a big part of the restaurant’s branding,” Ventrelle wrote. “It’s hard not to root for Lucille as you read about how she started her restaurant business in Long Beach after World World II. So we found ourselves a bit discombobulated after learning this heartwarming character is fictitious. It’s revealed by a single line on their website. Even our server admitted he had just heard of it. But maybe it’s time for Forrest Gump to have some company.”

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The About Us section as it first appeared (and still does) on Lucille’s website in June of 2020. Courtesy of Web.Archive.Org.

The story also slid by unnoticed and did what it was precisely created to achieve—a sense of pride and history: In a review for the Sacramento Magazine, proud mom Lisa Thompson ended her piece with words of excitement and honor.

“After a toast with Mason jar glasses of sweet tea, we mopped up with big, warm, moist towels (sealing the deal for this mom), and we all agreed that Lucille Buchanan’s granny would be proud,” she wrote. “This is authentic, slow-smoked Southern barbecue served up with huge portions, hospitality and homey goodness.”

Come June of 2020, the story was entirely removed—a history of Lucille Buchanan being seen by using Web.Archive.Org’s “Wayback Machine” site, where you can see the difference between Lucille’s website before the story appeared, when the story first launched in 2004, when the story last appeared, and the way it had looked when the story was removed. Currently, their website features no mention of Lucille nor has the company provided a response as to why they removed the story.

That latter part is important: The selling of these fake stories, largely at the expense of the Black community and fostered through stereotypes of that very community, has long existed—and companies have stepped forward to clear the air.

Though it had been criticized for decades, it wasn’t until 2021 that PepsiCo, the owner of the then-named Aunt Jemima, altered the brand’s name to Pearl Milling Company. “Old Aunt Jemima” comes from a song of slaves, later used as white entertainment at minstrel and blackface shows. Quaker Oats, the owner of the Aunt Jemima brand, paid Black actress Nancy Green—who was born into slavery—to travel and promote Aunt Jemima products in costume and character.

“As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations,” wrote Kristin Kroepfl, vice president and chief marketing officer of Quaker Foods North America, in a press release in 2021.

The company also vowed $1 million in donations toward organizations that empower Black women, in addition to PepsiCo’s $400 million, five-year commitment to advance and uplift Black businesses and communities.

To add even further strangeness to a white-owned business creating a fictitious Black woman as its backstory, the Las Vegas-based Culinary Union launched a press release and campaign against Lucille’s, asking them to explain their decision to use the story and suddenly remove it without a formal statement.

Lucille’s has yet to address the union or the website it created, nor has it returned requests from media as to why the company abandoned its fictionalized origin story.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.


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