By EMILY RAMSEY
FAMILY PRIDE: Billy Ray Cooper sits in the dining room of his Jenks Billy Ray’s BBQ location. On the wall above is a photo of one of his nephews in a calf roping competition. Cooper opened the first Billy Ray’s restaurant in 1984 using his grandmother’s barbecue sauce recipe.
EMILY RAMSEY for GTR Newspapers
When Billy Ray Cooper found the recipe for his Grandma Minnie’s barbecue sauce in her silverware chest, he knew he had found something special.
“She used to make that sauce, put it in mason jars and give some to everyone in the family,” he remembers.
After Minnie passed away, Cooper was going through her home, looking for things to help him remember her and his grandfather.
After he stumbled upon her sauce recipe, he walked to the neighborhood grocery store near his home, bought all of the recipe’s ingredients and made the sauce.
Thus began the journey of the creation of Billy Ray’s Catfish & .
Cooper opened his first barbecue location in 1984 at 3524 S.W. Blvd., and after 30 years, the original Billy Ray’s location remains.
However, before opening shop, Cooper knew there was a bit of preparation to be done.
“I taught myself how to cook barbecue,” he says. “I bought $1,000 worth of meat and cooked it all. My friends came and ate it, and they all loved it.”
Before becoming a restaurateur, Cooper worked as a fireman and owned a service station. Yet, when the opportunity arose to showcase the quality and flavor of his grandmother’s sauce, he couldn’t deny it.
And customers have responded equally favorably.
Over the years, Cooper expanded Billy Ray’s throughout the greater Tulsa area and beyond to fill customers’ barbecue demands.
“When we first opened in 1984, there were only a few barbecue restaurants in the area,” he says. “No comparison to the number that Tulsa has now.”
In order to remain efficient, Cooper now owns and operates three Billy Ray’s in the Tulsa area. His Broken Arrow restaurant, located at 1904 S. Elm Pl., opened in March 2010, and on Aug. 25, Cooper opened a third Billy Ray’s, at 399 E. Main St. in Jenks, the same location that served as home to Billy Ray’s in the 1990s.
“I always regretted leaving that Jenks location,” he says, because of the loyalty of the customer base and the strong community support of the school district.
“On a (football) game night, you can hardly move on Main Street,” he laughs.
After 30 years, customers remain strongly supportive of Billy Ray’s sliced brisket, ribs and tabouli – the restaurant’s three biggest sellers. Also high on the list of popular items is the restaurant’s catfish, which Cooper started selling in 1996, with a special seasoning and breading preparation that “I believe makes our catfish the best catfish in the state,” Cooper says.
Besides good food, family can also be felt at Cooper’s restaurants. Five of his grandchildren work at the three locations, his wife, Sherry, decorated all three restaurants’ interiors, and a photo of one of his nephews can be seen proudly on display in the dining room at the Jenks location.
All three Billy Ray’s Catfish & locations are open Tuesday through Saturday with specials running daily, including a Christmas meal special coming soon.