In 1936, Herman Burkle moved his little bakery from downtown to Madison and Cooper, at the time a busy intersection in "East" Memphis. (Right across the street was an Esso gas station called the "East Memphis Motor Company.") He found space in a narrow building that formerly housed the Idle Hour Billiard Parlor, squeezed into a row of businesses that included Purdy (later Purdy-Jester) Drugs, Piggly Wiggly #35, and La Vogue Beauty Salon. And there Burkle's Bakery would remain for the next four decades.
Herman Jr. and his sister, Ruth Lee (shown here), took over the business in the 1950s. They added "restaurant" to the name, and2125 Madison Avenue soon became a Memphis institution — a breakfast, lunch, and gathering place for everyone from bankers grabbing a cup of coffee on the way to the office to scruffy art students munching bearclaws after class.
"Burkle's never tried to expand, to spice its menu with exotic dishes, or to move to a more populous or affluent neighborhood," noted theMemphis Press-Scimitar. "It was satisfied to offer well-prepared bakery foods, meats, and vegetables without costly frills. And that is what has satisfied its customers, whether they are family groups or young people from the surrounding Overton Square."
Burkle's remains one of our favorite memories from the early days of Overton Square, yet it was Memphis' first "entertainment district" that played a role in its closing in 1976. While the owners of the Square told reporters that "it is operations like Burkle's that lend the atmosphere and nature of what we have here," those same owners allegedly doubled the rent the little bakery was paying them.
When Ruth wanted to retire, Herman decided he couldn't run the place without her. "It's just too much for one man," he said. "Too complicated." On July 6, 1976, the bakery's last day, members of the Memphis City Council donned white aprons and served free coffee and donuts to more than 1,000 people who came by to bid the old place goodbye. The Press-Scimitar called it "a regrettable ending. Other restaurants may replace it, but Burkle's will be remembered with fondness. And maybe a lick of the lips."
Although a string of other eateries and clubs moved into the space — does anybody remember Fabian's, Le Cafe du Louvre, and Studebakers? — Burkle's former location (along with everything else on that corner) is empty today.