Thursday, November 01, 2001

'King' has 50 years of ribbing

        The Ribs King took his first steps in weeks.

        And he joked about it. Through his tears.

        Guided by his wife, Matula, his physical therapist and a walker, Ted Gregory left a wheelchair and willed himself from his dining room to his kitchen.

[photo] Ted and Matula Gregory look forward to a party marking 50 years with their Montgomery Inn.
(Craig Ruttles photo)
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        He was practicing for tonight. He wants to be able to stand on his own two feet at a private party honoring the 50th anniversary of three Cincinnati icons, the Montgomery Inn and its founders, Ted and Matula Gregory.

        “They're going to expect me to get up and say something,” Ted said. “Can't disappoint them.”

        He eased himself into a chair as he caught his breath. Age and ailments have Ted Gregory down. But not out.

        “I've got diabetes and a bad liver. I'm 78. There's not much they can do for me,” he said as he reached for a cigar. He turned away to wipe his eyes.

        “I can't drink anymore,” he added. Eyes dry and smiling, he joked: “I used to be my own best customer.

        “And I'm down to six cigars a day. Used to be 20.”

        Sunshine streamed into the kitchen of the 12th-floor penthouse he shares with his wife of nearly 51 years. From their vantage point, high above Cincinnati's riverfront at Adams Landing, Ted and Matula can see the Montgomery Inn at the Boathouse on Eastern Avenue and the Pete Rose Way-based Montgomery Inn Banquet Center, two crown jewels of an empire that sells 13.5 tons of ribs a week.

        Both buildings boast caricatures of Ted's regal profile. Crown on head. Cigar in mouth. Sly grin.

[photo] Ted Gregory and his trademark stogie.
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        “It's just marketing,” he said about seeing his profile in lights. He gave a dismissive wave of his hand and stoked up his cigar. Chuckling, he added: “It's just another hustle.”

        Truth be told, Ted would like to hustle out a side door and skip tonight's party at the original Montgomery Inn in the heart of downtown Montgomery. He has pressing business up north.

        “I've got a horse running at Lebanon Raceway Thursday night,” he said. “Rather be at the track seeing Gregorian Chant run.

        “But if I did that,” he whispers, “she'd kill me.”

        He nodded his head and aimed his cigar at Matula.

        She's not about to let him miss this party. The inn means too much to them, to their family, to Greater Cincinnati.

        The original Montgomery Inn opened 50 years ago today at 6 a.m.

        “It was a burger and beer joint,” said Ted. But not ribs. Not yet.

        For the first 10 years the Gregorys routinely put in 12-, 15-, 18-hour days. On their feet. Without a walker or physical therapist. She cooked. He tended bar.

        “And I'd tell b.s. stories,” he said. “Always something funny.

        “I'd give something to a guy at the bar and say: "Here's a little something to put in your wallet.'

        “He'd take it. Look at it and laugh. It'd be a picture of me. I've pulled that gag all over the country. My face makes people laugh.”

        Especially when the face in the photo poses as the Ribs King under an oversized ermine and jewel-encrusted crown circled by a cloud of smoke rising from an ever-present cigar.

        As Ted puffed on his stogie — “it's a Davidoff, a cheapie, 27 bucks apiece” — Matula reminisced about their first morning in business.

        Their first customers were construction workers. They ordered breakfast. By the glass.

        “A shot of whiskey and a beer,” she said. “Then they'd be off to work, building houses and highways. Montgomery was farm country then. But it was changing.”

        No one knew it at the time, but those workers were building the Montgomery Inn's future.

        “The people in the new houses eventually needed a nice place to eat,” she said. “They took the highways to the Montgomery Inn.”

        The inn became a Greater Cincinnati destination after Matula served her first batch of ribs in 1959. She topped these tender slabs of pork with her trademark sauce made from a family recipe known only to the Gregory women.

        The ribs made Ted a King. Matula never took a crown. She's content to be his wife, not a queen.

        “I'm the quiet one,” she said. “Ted loves the limelight.”

        Business prospered along with their family. Ted and Matula's children, Tom, Vickie, Dean and Terry, work in the family business along with their spouses.

        Two of the Ribs King's palaces, the Boathouse and the original inn, regularly place among the top 100 independent restaurants in the country. In rankings compiled by Restaurants & Institutions magazine, the Boathouse, opened in 1989, stands at No. 20 with $12.5 million in annual sales from 800,000 customers. The original Montgomery Inn occupies No. 47 on yearly sales of $10.4 million and 580,000 customers.

        One of the Montgomery Inn's best customers is Bob Hope, Ted's friend since 1976.

        “Bob was in town that year with a bunch of county club types,” Ted recalled.

        “They were too tight to spring for his dinner. So they called and asked if I wanted to meet him, and could they bring him over the Montgomery Inn. They knew I'd treat. I'm like that. I'm a giver.”

        Whenever he would visit Bob Hope in California, Ted would take along, “300-400 slabs of ribs. He'd throw a party at his home, the roof would slide back and we'd be under the stars.”

        Earth-bound stars attended those parties.

        “I got to meet presidents Ford and Reagan. They called me Ted. Not Mr. Gregory. Or anything like that. Imagine that. A poor kid from Detroit. Whose parents went broke during the Depression. And to have two presidents call you by your first name.”

        Although 98 and ailing, Bob Hope still gets Montgomery Inn ribs delivered to his Palm Springs home every week.

        “I got a nice thank-you note the other week from his wife, Dolores,” Ted said. “She wrote that he's feeling better. I don't believe it. She told me in a nice way he doesn't recognize anybody anymore. Sad. But he still eats my ribs.”

        Ted took a sip from the glass Matula had just placed before him.

        “Lemonade,” he said, making a face.

        “Straight. Nothing in it.”

        He said he'd “love to have something stronger. But I can't.

        “I take 18 pills every morning. And a shot of insulin. At noon I take four more pills. Then, in the afternoon, a couple more. They take blood from me. And give me new blood.

        “It's not worth it.

        “I told my doctors: Just let me go. Let me be happy for a few more months. Then I'm outta here.”

        “I'm going to live forever like this? Hell, no. I'm in too much pain. My legs. My stomach. Who wants to live like this?”

        His jaw quivered. He squinted hard and fought back tears.

        When he opened his eyes, they were dancing with devilment.

        “Oh, but what a wonderful life I've had,” he said.

        “I've lived like a King.”

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340; e-mail

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