Louise Collins, barbecue matriarch, dies at 80

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Behind the scenes at the R&L Home of Good Barbecue, Louise Collins ruled. In her quiet, gracious way, the woman known as "Grandmama" to her family and generations of loyal customers set the tone at Seattle's oldest — some say best — barbecue house.

Mrs. Collins was most comfortable in her bustling kitchen and preferred not to call attention to herself. But it was her cooking, her personality and her fussing over details that flavored the place.

Mrs. Collins died Wednesday (Jan. 9) after an extended battle with Alzheimer's disease. She was 80.

She and her husband, the Rev. Robert Collins, moved to Seattle in 1944 from Tallulah, La., where she was born.

With a family friend, Mrs. Collins opened the Home of Good Barbecue in 1952 on Yesler Way in the Central Area. In 1962, the friend turned the business over to the Collinses, and eventually they added their first initials to the restaurant's name. Regulars refer to it as the R&L or the "Home of Good."

"She could really burn, really cook," recalled daughter Mary Collins Davis of Renton, who now owns and operates the restaurant. Many of the menu items come from Mrs. Collins' family recipes. "It was warm and friendly, and she made you welcome."

The food drew fans from all over: Soul singer Donny Hathaway, actor James Earl Jones, rap artists Sir Mix-A-Lot and Public Enemy all stopped by for ribs. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dropped by at closing time and stayed to eat and talk late into the night. Sammy Davis Jr. sent a limousine over for takeout.

"Everything you touch and see here ... you would feel her and my dad's presence," said another daughter, Patricia Collins of Renton.

Her father "would be in the pit with his apron and hat, cutting the meat, getting the food ready, and she'd be right beside him, saucing, packaging it and ringing it up, baking the pies," she recalled.

"We always called her the 'force behind the force.' "

Mrs. Collins didn't drive, "so he took her everywhere. They worked together and went home together. They were best friends as well as lovers and husband and wife and business partners," Patricia Collins said. "I never saw a discouraging word between them."

Mrs. Collins' life revolved around the restaurant, the church and the home — with the kitchen being the most likely spot to find her in all of those places.

She was a strict disciplinarian, though she called her daughters to task with a look, not a spanking, they said. Sometimes, her daughters said, they would have preferred the spanking.

Treating people nicely, going to church, helping out people in need were values she instilled in her daughters and in her grandchildren.

"She preferred to be in the background, but you can bet your bottom dollar she was there giving you that extra nudge," Davis said.

Mrs. Collins and her husband retired in 1979. The Rev. Collins, pastor of Philadelphia Missionary Baptist Church, died in 1985.

Mrs. Collins often still could be found in the restaurant. She'd sit down to talk with customers, "but it wouldn't be long before she would be back in the kitchen in the supervisory mode," Patricia Collins recalled.

Now, the fourth generation of Mrs. Collins' family has started working in the restaurant.

In addition to her daughters, Mrs. Collins is survived by her sister, Mary Lee Newman of Tallulah; five grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and numerous nieces and nephews.

A funeral service will be held at noon Thursday at Goodwill Baptist Church, 126 15th Ave., in Seattle. Remembrances may be made to ElderHealth Northwest, 800 Jefferson St., Seattle, WA 98104, or the Alzheimer's Association, 919 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1100, Chicago, IL 60611-1676.