Local legend ‘Mr. Tee’ reminisces on his journey back to the restaurant business

Heather Gann, Contributing Writer

Leon Trone, affectionately known to Tuscaloosa locals as “Mr. Tee,” was born and raised in the Druid City area. He is a kind, magnanimous man, who refers to his many UA student customers as “his kids.” His claim to fame is his visits to the local bar scene, where he sells his homemade barbecue to the patrons, gives them food if they are in need and in some cases, even gives them rides home.

“A lot of these kids didn’t have the money for food,” Trone said. “But I could see they needed to get something in them. So, if they came to ask me for a sandwich, I would take care of them. I wanted to make sure no one went hungry and everyone got home safe.” 

Trone remembered when he began this tradition more than 20 years ago at Harry’s Bar, located on Hargrove Road. He recalled looking at the bar and seeing large crowds of students and locals alike on Tuesday nights with empty bellies and emptier wallets. After observing this issue for a while, he asked then-owner Harry Hammond if it would be alright for him to start bringing homemade barbecue and sides to sell for a few dollars or give away. Harry ok’d it, and thereafter bars started requesting Trone’s services – and there, a legend was born.

Tuscaloosa resident John Hamby watched Trone in action for many years while working as a bouncer at local bars. 

“He [Trone] always has a smile for everyone,” Hamby said. “And when he walks in the room you know you’re about to have the best barbecue in Tuscaloosa.”

Hamby’s wife, Pamela, not only supports Trone’s vision, she is a huge fan of his culinary exploits. 

“You have to try the sauce,” she said. “Mr. Tee is one smooth cat with good food.”

After what Trone described as “God putting the message into his head,” he decided to open his own brick and mortar barbecue restaurant, Mr. Tee’s Awesome BBQ and Home Cooking, located at 8402 Highway 69 South. 

This will not be Trone’s first foray into the restaurant business, though. He had previously owned and operated Tee’s Ribs N-Things, located on the 2000 block of 10th Avenue. Before this, he ran Millenium Nightclub in the West End of Tuscaloosa.

Trone thought of how he used to enjoy the nightclub business, but that life no longer appealed to him after he found his faith in 2000. 

“Thanks to the good lord,” Trone said. “The club was shut down and the restaurant was put on my mind, and it was just something that made sense. I had been cooking barbecue since I was 17 years old, and it was something I knew how to do. I was cooking barbecue at the club anyways, so I started thinking about the restaurant, and then a pawn shop went up for sale, so I just took it and made it into a barbecue joint.”

Faith is something Trone credited for all good things in his life. He said faith led him to the restaurant business and to his success in life. His second motivating factor in opening the restaurant was to spend more time with his family and to pass on his love for people and good food to both his children and grandchildren. 

Trone showed an interest in food early on in life. He remembered spending a lot of time with his mother in the kitchen as the youngest of four boys, as a way to stay out of trouble. This was what sparked his interest in cooking. 

And of course, that interest in cooking led to his notoriety among UA students, with some eagerly introducing Mr. Tee to their parents on game days or whipping out a thesaurus to compliment his talent in the kitchen.

“When these kids taste my barbecue, they say so many nice and funny things,” he said. “It’s tee-licious, it’s the bomb, all kinds of different things.”

Tess Hensley, a senior majoring in public relations, shared her peers’ sentiments and raved about experiencing the legend in action.

“I remember the first time I saw him in a bar, and everyone started whispering excitedly, ‘There’s Mr. Tee!’ Hensley said. “And then, he pulled food out of an all red sack and started passing it around like Santa – it was awesome! I know Tuscaloosa loves him very much.”

Trone’s altruistic nature extends beyond The Strip. While the pandemic slightly delayed some steps in the opening of his restaurant, he found himself with a decent amount of free time. He recently had the idea to share some of his famous barbecue with the Community Soup Bowl, a local soup kitchen. 

A longtime patron said Thursdays, which are the days that Trone delivers, are a highly anticipated day there. 

“We are thankful for all of the meals served here,” the patron said. “But Mr. Tee’s barbecue is like pizza day when you were in school – it’s just something everyone gets excited about. It’s very sweet of him to take the time to make all that food for us, he’s just a really good man.”

Trone said serving the soup kitchen is what has really gotten him through this pandemic, and while he has had to take a short break from it to finalize opening the restaurant, he will be resuming his Thursday meal deliveries, where he not only brings his barbecue, but some of his wife’s home cooking as well.

Besides delicious barbecue and a welcoming demeanor, there is something else that is essential to the “Mr. Tee” persona: his naval captain’s hat. Trone explained the accessory has roots in his military connections. Both his father and cousin served in the United States Army, as did his wife, whom he met later in life. 

Trone never actively served, but he was in the reserves, and while he never became a captain, well, the hat “always looked good on me,” Trone said. Trone has been wearing the captain’s hat for nearly 60 years now and continues to wear it to show his appreciation for the military.

While having such a high status in the community may have inflated the ego of a lesser man, Trone stays humble.

“That’s very nice, and I love hearing that,” he said when asked about his “local hero” status. “But all of the glory goes to God. He has blessed me and it is truly a blessing to be able to be here and to have been able to serve those kids. I think one of the reasons people like me so much is because I’m nice to everyone, I treat everyone the same, because I see them all as special. Anyone can do that, because everyone is special. I’ve been truly blessed to do what I do.”

Having returned to the restaurant business more than a decade after his last one, naturally, some things have changed. Trone explained that before the pandemic struck, a lot of the change in Tuscaloosa was very beneficial to the restaurant business. He recounted how over the past decade, people started eating out more and as more people came to the city, more people were frequenting the local businesses. He further expressed hopes for better days ahead –  when the regulations will be lifted in Tuscaloosa and things will go “back to normal.”

The road to Mr. Tee’s Awesome BBQ and Home Cooking has been one that has lasted a lifetime, even though it was not originally on Trone’s radar – as can be seen by his many other ventures. It has definitely not been an easy road, but Trone has never given in to worry after finding his faith and deciding from then on that everything was in God’s hands.

After achieving his own dream, Trone has very simple words of advice for his “children” who will be graduating from the University in the hopes of pursuing their dreams in years to come. 

“Any dream worth having is worth working hard at,” Trone said. “So, find what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about, and go after it. Believe in yourself, and put God first, and it will happen for you.”