Living Large in Northeast Ohio
March 5, 2016
By: Mark G. Mangie
When I asked Charlie Staples what his passion is…he was almost stumped. After thoughtful consideration he gave me his answer. Business. It made me smile. I understood his hesitation. I understood his answer. People like Charlie…people like me…love our work. He loves business. It doesn’t matter what the business is. The pleasure comes from making something work that started from nothing. Some people build buildings. Some people build machines. Some people build symphonies or art. Charlie builds business.
The Mahoning Valley has known Charlie Staples for a very long time…mostly for his barbeque. He has run a barbeque establishment on Belmont Avenue since 1975. My friend and associate Tracey Winbush suggested that I interview him for Youngstown Eats. My structure for YE includes a lead story centered around people of consequence who live in the area…community leaders be it in government, the arts, sports, or business. Charlie was a barbeque dude. Okay…he rents a space…gets a recipe…and starts selling barbeque. End of story. I have never been so wrong.
Charlie Staples is the American Dream. What I found was an African American male who, against the backdrop of the tumultuous civil rights movement of the 1960’s, defied the odds, worked hard, accepted the risk, and won big. He is a model for all Americans to follow. Friendly and outgoing and a quintessential promoter when it comes to his passion, he has kept his own counsel in his private life over the years only letting a privileged few see the degree of his success and the fun he had getting there. Together with his partner in life for almost fifty years…the very lovely Marge…they forged the great American success story.
I thought we would be meeting at his restaurant. Instead Tracey, my wife Ginger and I were invited to Charlie’s residence…a gorgeous combination of urban chic and tradition…I could rent a room and be perfectly happy. The dining room table was set and Marge was cooking. What an unexpected treat with china and crystal…the whole nine yards! Charlie and Marge are magnificent anachronisms…classy in an era of yoga pants, sweats, and blue jeans…and obviously still enjoying an enduring relationship of love and mutual respect. Building together as a team does that. We felt right at home.
Charlie’s family moved to Youngstown from West Virginia in the early 1950’s so his Dad could work in the mills. As a result of escalating gang issues here, Charlie’s folks sent him to live in Columbus with relatives who could offer him a better environment. There he met Marge. With $6.00 in his pocket he married her at the tender age of 19 traveling back and forth between Youngstown and Columbus living with her folks and his folks.
Always resourceful, Charlie landed a job at Truscan, a division of Republic Steel. They sent him to Choffin Vocational School to learn welding…and how to do layouts. At the height of the civil rights movement he found himself the beneficiary of a consent decree allowing him to move up quickly not only in Truscan Steel, but within his union where they asked him to become shop steward. But Charlie was already traveling between plants meeting with management throughout the Republic system. He was the layout man!! By his early twenties he was married, had a daughter, built a house in Campbell paying cash as it was constructed…and was making $27,000.00 per year. By any measure back then, that was good money!!!
But Charlie wasn’t happy: “At that time I had $500.00 in the bank- black people didn’t have money for cigarettes then- they were cashing in pop bottles just to get them. I knew a lot of people. I just was not satisfied-we were building a home in Campbell -and making a lot of money. But I was not very happy. Everyone I worked with was white and all were very good to me, good mentors. But it wasn’t enough. Everyone thought I was crazy because I wanted to do more- I wanted my own business.”
Thus started Charlie’s journey to build a business. He first attempted to buy a convenience store in his neighborhood. He saved up the money he needed, but it was sold out from under him. He also learned the value of looking at cash flow when he discovered the profit margin wasn’t that great. Franchises were coming into their own and he attempted to buy a Dairy Queen, but who is going to loan money to a black entrepreneur?
But he also learned about a cousin of a friend who went to Columbus and started a barbeque business. His curiosity piqued, Charlie went to Columbus to meet this fellow who, in turn, showed him how the BBQ business works. He also learned that owners of BBQ businesses don’t sell their sauce recipes.
Charlie came back to Youngstown eventually purchasing a BBQ restaurant on Belmont Avenue owned by Bill Robinson. Marge and Charlie had saved some money. Marge worked at Packard Electric. She had half the money. Charlie had half the money. It took some talking into, but Marge finally got on board with project. They called it “C. Staples.” Charlie, always the promoter, bought a lighted sign and through trial and error upgraded the restaurant increasing in-house dining capacity, installing air conditioning so folks would to come in to eat, did concentrated advertising on WHOT, and got a beer and liquor license.
But Bill Robinson refused to share the sauce recipe. Marge and Charlie bought some Open Pit and successfully doctored it up for a year. Success follows success. Mr. Robinson after seeing what Charlie could do eventually sold him the sauce recipe which came from a relative in the Carolina’s. The same recipe is used today.
As Charlie’s business expanded, he decided it was also time to expand the facility. He contracted to buy a piece of property across from C. Staples. The day the final paperwork was to be signed, Sheet and Tube announced it was closing. Mrs. Staples didn’t raise a stupid son. He forfeited the earnest money, entered into a handshake agreement with the owner of a closed neighboring BBQ restaurant to manage C. Staples, and decided to move on.
That involved moving to Columbus. Charlie opened his new BBQ restaurant out on Livingston Avenue. His restaurant was the only game in town at this location. There was not one other restaurant in the area. His first day of business he sold out of ribs by 6:00 PM. They were supposed to be open until 11:00. It was an extremely successful run for several years…until the big chains began to filter into the neighborhood. Charlie decided to sell and thought he had an agreement with Church’s Fried Chicken. The upper management nixed the deal when they began to comprehend how many pigs were needed to sell the ribs. The successful run ended in a bankruptcy.
It was now 1981. Charlie and Marge had to start over again. Always the optimist, Charlie heard that the black hair care business was fairly lucrative, and there was a need in Houston, Texas. They packed up the car and off they went to Houston with only a little bit of cash, no place to live and bad credit. Bankruptcies have the habit of doing that!! One other thing. Neither knew anything about the beauty supply business.
They had to lease a storefront and find a place to live…and have something to sell. “It was the height of the black hair industry. We had a fresh bankruptcy. We put our furniture in storage and piled what we could on the car. We found a building they leased to me. All cash. By God is so God. Because my credit is bad. I met a woman down there who didn't check my credit. That’s how I got the apartment. I never went back to work for anyone again. I went to Texas as a welder. I could have made all kinds of money as a welder but that wasn't for me. I did not know anything about the beauty business. But I need to get things to sell. I only had 300 dollars left.”
CHARLIE STAPLES: THE MAN BEHIND THE SAUCE