Business

Lil' Ray's celebrates 40 years of po-boys, seafood, bottled Barq's

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GULFPORT -- In 1996, David Kidd made a mistake.

He and his staff at Lil' Ray's in Gulfport wanted customers to join in celebrating the restaurant's 20 years of business, so he decided to bring back to the '70s prices, when the restaurant just served po-boys and fries.

For a limited time, Kidd served the very first Lil' Ray's menu -- complete with 1976 prices.

"We didn't even have platters back then," he said. "It was strictly po-boys, soft drinks and draft beer. Everything was served on white butcher paper, wrapped up, no plates."

Customers could get a large shrimp po-boy -- back then, it was about 14 inches -- for $1.50. A 9-inch roast beef sandwich -- made with homemade gravy and bread shipped in daily from New Orleans -- was less than a buck. A side of French fries was only 30 cents, the price of a gallon of gasoline at the time.

"It kind of backfired on us because of the draw power that it had -- the amount of people that would show up for the prices on those po-boys," he said, sitting at a picnic table in the corner of his Courthouse Road restaurant, which has been open since 1976.

Part of Lil' Rays

Kidd at one point wanted to get rid of the tables, for they have been the seating at the restaurant since it opened. His wife and daughter overruled him.

"Ain't no way -- this is a part of Lil' Ray's," they said of the picnic tables, which are covered with printed fabric and topped with glass.

Lil' Rays in Gulfport celebrates its 40th birthday this year, and though many things have changed, a lot hasn't.

The menu has expanded to include fresh fish, seafood platters, side items and salads -- although the gravy for the roast beef is still made in-house every morning. And customers can still enjoy a roast-beef po-boy with a bottle of Barq's Root Beer.

But favorite from "back in the day," the trout po-boy, is now available only as a special; the fish isn't as easy to come by as it was 40 years ago.

"As things changed, we gravitated towards platters, building seafood platters, oyster platters, putting stuff on plates," he said. "We got away from counter service and gravitated towards the full-service concept."

The boiled seafood hasn't changed. Kidd recalled having to go to Louisiana to get crawfish before it became trendy to have boiled seafood as a menu option.

"Taking care of the customers," he said, "we still keep that as a priority."

Keeping it consistent

The gumbo, still made in-house by chef Jackie Dixon, is now cooked with ready-made roux.

"It's not like the old days of having to peel the shrimp and cut the seasoning, you know, really from scratch, almost from the garden and such," Kidd said, but Dixon still stirs up the 8-gallon batches before the restaurant opens each day.

One of the most important things that has remained consistent over four decades is the customers, Kidd said.

"We're on our third generation of customers," he said. "The second generation grew up coming in here and eating and remember it growing up, and now they're coming in here with their kids."

The first Lil' Ray's, owned by Kidd's brother Ray Kidd Jr., opened in 1969 on U.S. 90 in Waveland, shortly after Hurricane Camille. But it closed forever after the building was flooded in 2005's Hurricane Katrina. Ray Kidd's son Trey operates the Lil' Ray's in Long Beach.

David Kidd opened the Lil' Rays in Gulfport on Pass Road in 1972, but it moved to Courthouse Road in 1976.

And by this time next year, David Kidd may also be retiring, but the doors at Lil' Ray's in Gulfport will remain open. He is training his daughter Jenny Rabby to take over.

"This is what I've been working for," Rabby said, "but it's a scary thought to me.

"I'm scared to death, but this is all I know, and I wouldn't want to work this hard in the restaurant business with anyone besides my dad and my family. It's like family here."

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