Share this article

print logo

Hard work pays off for Smith

The word retirement is not in Lee Smith's vocabulary or part of his 20-year plan for his future.

It took him about 45 years to build up a mini-empire on Fillmore Avenue, near Fougeron Street, that includes a popular barbecue restaurant, a lounge and a car wash.

But the 77-year-old businessman is not done amassing his fortune. He plans to market his barbecue sauce this year.

"When I'm 100, then I'll retire," he said.

One of 15 siblings -- 12 of them still alive -- Smith was born in Selma, Ala., but was raised in Pensacola, Fla. He moved to Buffalo in 1951 because he just wanted to leave the South.

"I came on the bus, Greyhound. It cost $11," he said. "I had a brother who was here, and I stayed with him three days. I've been on my own since."

Even then, he knew he was going into business for himself. "But I didn't know what kind," he said.

He started driving trucks and did that for about 20 years. Meanwhile, he rented a storefront for $50 a month and opened Lee's Barbecue.

The last two years of his trucking career, Smith split 18-hour days between a hot grill and the open road.

"In 20 years, I missed two-and-a-half days, and I was five minutes late once," Smith said of his trucking days.

On weekends, he would truck all day and then go to the restaurant after work at around 5 p.m.

"I would work until about 7 a.m. Sunday morning, no sleep till then. It was worth it," he said.

When Smith saved up enough money to buy the building, he quit the trucking business. Then he purchased the building next door, renaming the old 1261 Club as Lee's Lounge. In the 1980s, he expanded across the street with Lee's Car Wash.

Along the way, many people told him he would not make it. But he has proved them wrong many times over.

"You can do anything you want if you try hard enough," Smith said.

And except for a couple of employees he wished he hadn't hired, Smith said he would do the same thing all over again and "do it better."

"I knew I always wanted to have something, and I knew you had to work hard to get it," he said.

By many accounts, Smith still is working hard, spending most weekdays at the bar and the barbecue. And he has created work for more than 1,000 people over the years.

Smith's 29-year-old son, Ron, one of his six children, will take over the family business one day. "Somebody's got to be here to carry on," Smith said.