Betty Jean Gillespie, whose Speed Queen Bar-B-Q Restaurant is a Milwaukee barbecue institution that has served the community for over 50 years, died Tuesday from colon cancer. She was 73.
Speed Queen (“Speed” for the restaurant’s quick service, and “Queen” a play on the name of a competitor, Black King Barbecue), was founded by Gillespie’s first husband, Leonard Partee, in the summer of 1956 in the back of a storefront in the old Hay Market on Fifth and Vliet Streets.
The couple took the family recipe for barbecue and secret sauce and set up shop right next to the then undisputed BBQ champ, “Black King.”
“In the beginning, Leonard and I survived on the overflow from Black King,” according to Gillespie on the restaurant’s website.
“Word of our excellent barbecue, secret sauce and speedy service quickly spread and I was dubbed the ‘Speed Queen.’ Soon we had all the business we could handle and Black King was moving away,” she said.
But it wasn’t easy in the beginning. The couple would work 18-hour days, seven days a week. According to a profile on Gillespie in 50-Plus Magazine recounting the early days, money was tight. So much so that the couple had to sell meat before they could buy more meat.
In the article, Gillespie recalled how, after earning money from weekend sales, she and Leonard would go to the packinghouse on Sundays to buy meat for the next business day.
It wasn’t until around 1967 or 1968 that things started to turn for the better. Gillespie said they would have “15 cents more than we needed to pay bills.”
From the Hay Market, Speed Queen moved to 12th and Vine, then to its present location at 12th and Walnut in 1975. The business has grown from the two person operation of Gillespie and Leonard to 40 people, which her remaining children, Giovanna Gillespie and Gwyneth Smith, will now continue the Speed Queen legacy.
What makes Speed Queen barbecue so good and popular with both the well-heeled and not-so-well-heeled everyday folks was the way the perfectly seasoned meat was “smoked” in a fire pit. No other restaurant can duplicate the Speed Queen method because current laws prohibit it.
The sauce that made Speed Queen famous—from mild, to spicy, to blazing hot—can now be found in area grocery stores. The restaurant’s barbecue was constantly praised by local publications that listed popular Milwaukee eateries.
Gillespie showed her appreciation for the years of community support by giving back to charities and organizations in the central city.
“Betty Gillespie’s good cooking, quick service and warm personality made Speed Queen BBQ a Milwaukee Institution. She proudly produced Milwaukee’s finest barbecue while also serving her community,” said Mayor Tom Barrett in a statement released Tuesday. “She will be sorely missed by loyal Speed Queen BBQ patrons near and far.”
Funeral service details were still pending as of this writing.
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