Standing behind the grill in his traditional chef’s uniform, 52-year-old Marvin Smith has been selling “the world’s best hamburger” at Ollie’s Trolley for nearly 20 years.
I was born in Zebulon, Georgia. I have six brothers and five sisters. All my sisters are older than me, so they made us little boys do all the biscuits and the gravy and the fried chicken. Today, I’m making money from that.
John Y. Brown Jr. started Ollie’s Trolley as a chain. We still use that same sauce and that same seasoning on the Ollie Burgers. Everybody thinks I can cook real good, but really it’s the seasoning. I use it when I make omelettes and macaroni and cheese and turkey and ribs. Everybody likes the seasoning, so why not put it on everything?
I always tell people just don’t be in a rush. If you’re going to have good food, you just got to take your time. That’s what home cooking is all about: slow cooking and putting that love into it.
I’m here every day. that makes a difference.
We have a customer, her name is Barbara Gould, and she’s a fund-raiser for the Democratic Party. We cater stuff at her house in Indian Hill. When she brought the president to Cincinnati, she stuck with us. I got to meet the president and Mrs. Obama and got my picture taken with them.
We went through all the riots. There was not a brick thrown here. There wasn’t no graffiti here. I didn’t have to stand here with a shotgun all night. Nobody touched my place. That’s because I treat people right. I’m in touch with the neighborhood.
I don’t like it when I see guys just hanging on the corner, doing nothing, going no place. I like to be a symbol. There’s a section of my race that needs help. I want to be that guiding light that if you work hard, you can make it. There is still hope.
Trolley to the Stars
Smith caters for the Bengals on Fridays before home games, and Reds manager Dusty Baker is a loyal customer. In fact, Smith is working on a book about all the celebrities who have dropped by for an Ollie Burger over the years. “It’s what I wanted to do in business—meet all these famous people. But I’m doing it through cooking.”
Ollie’s sells nearly 1,000 deep fried turkeys between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Smith says the trick is to cook it slowly, at about 300 degrees. “That way you’re going to have it nice and brown on the outside, but you’re going to keep all that juice on the inside,” he says. “It just takes time to make a good meal.”
Mr. Ollie, I Presume?
People see the name of the restaurant and assume Smith’s name is Ollie. “Most people don’t even know my real name,” he says. “But I try to keep the record straight. My name is Marvin Smith. That’s the name my parents gave me.”
Photograph by Jonathan Willis
Originally published in the July 2012 issue.