Remembering Lee Smith of Lee’s BBQ: ‘The community loved him’

Local News

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Lee’s BBQ has been an East Side staple for almost 60 years. Sadly, owner Lee Smith died this week.

Many will remember the BBQ itself, but his community will also remember the person he was.

“We’re gonna miss him,” said Percy Bryant, who grew up in the community and eating Smith’s food.

Many in the East Side neighborhood share his feelings after hearing the news of Smith’s death.

Smith opened Lee’s BBQ in 1963 during a time when there was a boom of African American businesses in the community.

His brother-in-law, Finley Cooperwood, said Lee’s BBQ is the last one standing.

“He started up this business and the very first day when he opened up he made $5, and the next day he made $450, and the rest is history. This block became his empire,” Cooperwood said.

At one point, Smith not only owned the restaurant, he also owned the bar next door and the car wash across the street. Cooperwood said they started calling it Lee’s Corner.

“He was a very soft, giving, thoughtful man,” Cooperwood said.

Smith sponsored local sports teams, sat on a diversity board of businesspeople organized by Mayor Griffin, and is part of an exhibit in the Buffalo Museum of Science.

Smith had the chance to move his restaurant into different communities but Cooperwood said he wanted to stay in the neighborhood that supported him since day one.

“He was all about his community and that’s what has helped him survive with 58 years he’s been in business,” he said. “He loved the Buffalo Bills, since O.J. Simpson days if you were lucky enough each Sunday when he was still going to the games he would pick 10 of his customers who would get the opportunity to go to that game with him.”

The key to the delicious BBQ: the sauce. Cooperwood said only one other person has the recipe.

“That sauce, that sauce! I think they’re gonna have to retire that, they’re gonna probably have to retire that, nobody can do it like him,” Bryant said.

Cooperwood said Smith wanted other young black people to be inspired by his story and leave a legacy in their communities.

The family hasn’t decided yet if they’ll keep the business open, but Lee’s BBQ will live on through his legacy.

Cooperwood also said the sauce might be bottled and put on the market soon.

Kayla Green is a reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2021. See more of her work here.

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