About 10 days in to his new venture, the owner of Pee Wee’s Restaurant in west Rock Island totally lost his cool Sunday when a familiar face walked through the door for the first time.
Fending off tears Monday during an interview, Will Clay said he "was blown away" when Rock Island native Booker Edgerson, a starting cornerback for the Buffalo Bills in the 1960s, unexpectedly showed up at his eatery.
“I gave him a hug like I would hug my dad,” said Clay, who noted his late father, Wayland “Pee Wee” Clay Sr., and Edgerson were "great friends" back in the day.
Sunday marked the end to the business' second weekend in operation, and the response from customers has been "unbelievable," Clay said.
Pee Wee's, located at the corner of 9th Street and 21st Avenue at 2035 Martin Luther King Drive, offers a variety of soul food and Cajun-Creole fare.
Lunch and dinner specials include red beans and rice, collard greens, gumbo, candied yams, po' boy sandwiches with shrimp or catfish and boudin, sausage stuffed with rice and seasonings.
For breakfast, which Pee Wee's began serving this week, Clay, who lived in New Orleans at one point, recommends trying their shrimp and grits.
"What we have on our menu, you won't be able to find anywhere else in this area," he said, calling his honey butter cornbread "off the chain."
During his weekend visit, an overwhelmed Edgerson said he ordered a po' boy sandwich with shrimp, red beans and rice and collard greens. His "lady friend" ordered fried chicken.
The former football and track star at Rock Island High School lives in Buffalo, New York, but returns "home" to the Quad-Cities a few times a year. He predicts Pee Wee's will be successful, and he plans to go back for their smothered chicken, his old friend's signature dish.
"A lot of folks will brag about their barbeque, but Pee Wee bragged about his smothered chicken," Edgerson said Monday by phone. "It was very good."
Clay, who also lettered in football and track at Rocky and competed in both sports for two years at Augustana College, hopes the recipe, which features a gravy of some sort, carries on his father's legacy.
"I always want to remember my dad, and I want people to remember my dad," he said.
Sandwiched between Aunt Bea's Cafe to the south and Big JJ Fish and Chicken to the north, the entrepreneur said his place is a "great fit for the neighborhood."
"I'm hoping there's enough (business) for all of us and more," said Clay, who stressed that side of town needs attention. "There's room for more businesses, so I hope I can be an inspiration."
Clay, 51, said he purchased the property in November 2015 from the owners of Sid's Italian Beef, just a few months after his father passed from liver cancer.
Before investing all of his hours into renovating the building, Clay worked full-time as an electrician for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 145.
Consumed by his responsibilities at Pee Wee's, he said he has not worked a union job in about five months. Once things settled down at the restaurant, however, Clay plans to get back to the trade he picked up 20-plus years ago.
His family deserves a lot of credit for their "tremendous" help, too, Clay said.
On Monday, for example, the restaurant was closed, but Clay's older brother, Wayland Clay Jr., drove to Chicago to stock up on produce, meat and dairy.
Back in Rock Island, Clay's girlfriend, Angela Anderson, helped prepare a fresh batch of collard greens.
Clay's mother, Wilhelmenia Clay, a real estate agent, also pitches in when she can.
"I couldn’t do it without them," Clay said.
In 2013, Clay's younger sister committed suicide, a loss that still haunts him in his sleep.
Since opening two weeks ago, Clay has been piloting an emotional high that completely lifted his spirits and "heavy heart."
"This has helped keep me busy," he said, holding back more tears. "I know my sister and my dad would be proud."