Billy Ray Cooper, founder and owner of Billy Ray’s Catfish & BBQ along Route 66 in southwest Tulsa, died Monday, reported the Tulsa World. He was 65.
The restaurant’s Facebook page posted this message Tuesday:
It is with heavy hearts we share the news that our founder, friend, and beloved family member Billy Ray Cooper fulfilled his earthly duties and received his Heavenly promotion surrounded by his family yesterday. He will be so greatly missed and was loved by many. Most importantly: he LOVED many. He was a family man who loved his wife, children and grandchildren with his whole heart. He instilled a work ethic in them that will carry on and continue to bring the service and quality of Billy Ray’s BBQ and catfish that you have known and loved since 1984. Rest peacefully, BILLY RAY.
Please keep his family and friends in your prayers. This time is very difficult.
As the restaurant’s website proclaims, Cooper opened his first restaurant in May 21, 1984, after finding a barbecue-sauce recipe in his late Grandma Minnie’s silverware chest.
He told the Tulsa World in an earlier interview she wouldn’t reveal the recipe while she was alive. He stumbled onto it two years after she died.
For all the credit Cooper gave his grandma, though, there was another sizable factor in his success: namely, the man himself.
With his stout 6-foot-4 frame, quick wit and hearty laugh, Cooper was a visible presence through the years at his restaurants. Often wearing overalls, he would greet customers warmly as they walked through the door.
Mouth-watering photos of Billy Ray’s fare and other details about the restaurant may be read at the Tulsa Food website:
“Yall Come Back!” those words aren’t just written on the wall as you walk out of Billy Ray’s BBQ & Catfish, you are also guaranteed to hear it on your way out. That along with many other hospitable phrases and conversation from some of Tulsa’s most down home restaurant folk. […]
First thing I look for at any BBQ joint is the smoker, even a sign or smell of one. It was not hard to find Billy Ray’s – right there in plain view almost towering over the parking lot. When you walk into Billy Ray’s it resembles a southern BBQ shack. Depending on how you are, that’s not a bad thing…the place has character.
Cooper, a graduate of the now-historic Webster High School in southwest Tulsa, also just off Route 66, served in the Army and worked as a firefighter and truck driver before he became a restaurateur. He said he got the idea of opening an establishment while frequenting one of his favorite restaurants during his trucking days.
The first Billy Ray’s Catfish & BBQ opened at 3524 Southwest Blvd. (aka Route 66), which is still operating. He later opened another site in nearby Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He had another location in east Tulsa on 15th Street as recently as 2011, but it apparently closed.
Cooper’s daughter and son-in-law now run both restaurants, and they told the newspaper “nothing will change” in wake of the founder’s death. They had four other family members also had helped run the restaurants years before Cooper’s death; he was semi-retired.
Mark Griffith Westwood Funeral Home in southwest Tulsa was in charge of arrangements. A memorial service will be held at a later date.
(Image of Billy Ray Cooper at his Billy Ray’s Catfish & BBQ restaurant via Facebook)