Leon B. Speights, founder of Leon's Pig Pen, where businessmen, judges and doctors rubbed shoulders with blue-collar workers, the homeless and welfare recipients, all dining on smoked ribs, minced pork sandwiches and fried chicken, died Oct. 14 at his North Bentalou Street home of kidney failure. He was 74.
"A night at Leon's is practically a social event," observed the City Paper in a 1970s article.
Born in Baltimore and raised at Greenmount Avenue and East Saratoga Street, Leon Benny Speights was a 1958 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School.
After high school, Mr. Speights embarked on a career that included working as a waiter, head waiter, line cook and cook. He was later a waiter and bartender at the Pimlico Hotel, Bonnie View Country Club and Woodholme Country Club, where he also gained business acumen.
In 1965, while working as a waiter at the Pimlico Hotel, Mr. Speights took his life savings of $900 and opened his first Pig Pen on Fremont Avenue in South Baltimore, which was an instant hit.
"Our biggest problem back then was that we kept running out of ribs on busy days," Mr. Speights told the City Paper.
"When I started, all you had in this city were a bunch of mom-and-pop barbecue operations and maybe a stand or two, which provided my main competition," he recalled in the interview.
"People would be standing in line, getting impatient, and we'd be driving all over the city trying to find some extra ribs and chicken to throw into the back of the car and get it over to the store before everybody left. It was a pretty tough learning process," he said.
Through the years, Mr. Speights opened stores at Liberty Heights Avenue and Garrison Boulevard, Park Heights and Belvedere avenues, Pennsylvania Avenue, Hanover Street, Walbrook Junction, Lombard and Exeter streets, North and Greenmount avenues, and Edmondson and Bonaparte avenues.
Mr. Speights was fond of saying, "We only use pork from pigs that made hogs of themselves," and then turned it into the slogan for his carryouts, whose signage included a pig saying, "Folks, It's Finger Licking Good."
Committed to the city, Mr. Speights eschewed the suggestion that he expand to the suburbs.
"I'd be crazy to do that," he said in the interview. "First of all, my stores are all in low-rent buildings. I can't afford the rent Gino's and McDonald's pay. Besides, If I relocated to the suburbs, I'd lose all my city customers."
Mr. Speights knew the power of sensory suggestion and installed in the windows of his stores large metal rotisseries, where fresh slabs of white pork gently rotated. The fatty skin was gently reduced to a crispy covering that was bathed in a special hot-and-sweet, North Carolina-style vinegar-based barbecue sauce, family members said.
In addition to selling ribs, minced pork and fried chicken, sides included collard greens, french fries and sweet potato pie, which were heaped onto white trays or packaged for carryout.
Mr. Speights decided to gamble on a high-end venture that culminated in Leon's Steaks, a white-table-cloth restaurant that sold steak, prime rib and lobster dinners on Liberty Heights Avenue. It failed.
The busiest Leon's Pig Pen was at North and Greenmount avenues and was pure bedlam, reported the City Paper.
"At 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning, the glass-enclosed barbecue stand is jammed with a jostling wedge of customers, all trying to squeeze up to the counter where the food is sold," reported the City Paper. "There is no line, just a mass of people from all over the city watching each other and shouting out their orders like berserk speculators at a commodities exchange."
At its peak, the Pig Pens sold 6,000 pounds of pork per week, had combined sales of $1.4 million, and had a payroll for its 90 employees of $350,000.
But overexpansion forced the chain, which by then had fallen to six stores, into bankruptcy in 1981. They were liquidated in 1982.
Mr. Speights owned and drove a taxi for the Royal Cab Co. until he was shot during a 1993 robbery and retired two years later, family members said.
"He was still cooking ribs and enjoyed cooking for family and friends," said his son, Gregory Leon Speights of Chicago.
His wife of 12 years, the former Hattie Louise Patterson, died in 1996.
Funeral services will begin with a wake at 10:30 a.m. Thursday followed by services at 11 a.m. at the Howell Funeral Home, 4600 Liberty Heights Ave.
In addition to his son, Mr. Speights is survived by a daughter, Lisa Carmella Speights of Baltimore; two brothers, Carlton Speights of Reisterstown and Richard Speights of Kenbridge, Va.; his longtime companion, Patsy Ringgold of Baltimore; and three grandchildren. Another son, Kevin Benny Speights, died in 1998.