There's A New Mural at the Four Way Soul Food Restaurant

A family business in South Memphis has a new, colorful way to share their rich history with the community—and visitors from around the world.

The Four Way soul food restaurant recently unveiled a new mural on their 76-year-old building. The artwork features portraits of past and current owners including Irene Cleaves, Willie Earl and Jo Ellen Bates, and Patrice Bates Thompson. The figures are painted on a background of golden, orange, and bright teal circles with the restaurant’s signature green color as accents. 

You can see the new mural at 998 Mississippi Boulevard. The Four Way is open Thursdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and every first, second, and third Sunday of the month. Pro tip: go early! You can follow the Four Way on Instagram for the latest updates.

While we’ve shared the delicious food of the Four Way many times on I Love Memphis, for this new mural I wanted the full story on the restaurant, the mural process, the family, and the artist. I interviewed four women for this story: Whitney Williams, Tonya Dyson, Danielle Sierra, and the owner, Patrice Bates Thompson.

I hope y’all find this as fascinating as I did—and I hope you get over there to the Four Way for a plate of catfish, greens, yams, and cornbread!

Mrs. Patrice Four Way Mural
Alex Shansky
Patrice Bates Thompson at the Four Way restaurant in South Memphis.

About The Four Way

Irene Cleaves and her husband Clint opened the Four Way in 1946, and over the years built its reputation as a community hub and a safe, unsegregated meeting place.

They served incredible soul food to their neighborhood, civil rights leaders, Stax musicians, and visiting dignitaries, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Bates bought the Four Way restaurant in 2001, and in 2016 their daughter Patrice Bates Thompson took over.

The new mural is a tribute to the community legacy, historical significance and the mouth-watering, awe-inspiring cuisine at the Four Way restaurant. Mrs. Patrice, as she prefers to be called, also hopes the artwork will bring renewed attention to the business in hard times. As for the design, she says “everyone loves it, they’ve been very positive about it, saying that it’s inspiring.”

“It took me a minute to accept that my face would be on the side of the building,” she laughs. But I’m adjusting to it, and it’s nice. I think the artist did an exceptional job.”

The Artist

Memphis-based artist Danielle Sierra designed and installed the mural through a partnership between the Four Way family, the Urban Art Commission, Memphis Tourism, and I Love Memphis Blog.

Whitney Williams of UAC explained the artist selection process to me. First, the Urban Arts Commission puts out a call for artists to submit their portfolios. That group is narrowed down to three finalists, each of whom are paid to create a design proposal. 

four way mural
Alex Shansky

After that, it’s up to a committee (which includes community partners and artist advocates) and the family to choose the design. “The family has final say and voice in it,” Whitney explains. 

Danielle is originally from California, but moved to Memphis for graduate school. She went through the Urban Art Commsion’s District Mural Program and after her training, she fell in love with public art. “Now it’s one of my passions," Danielle says. “It’s important to take art out of the gallery and put it in the viewership of everyone.” 

Another important aspect of mural creation? “It’s not a vanity project, it’s not about you. It’s about the people in the community.” 

She chose to enter the submission process for the Four Way mural project because she was inspired by the story of the Four Way. “They started a Black-owned business in a time of segregation and this woman [Irene Cleaves]…she just did this. It was inspiring to me as a minority,” Danielle recalls.

“As a finalist, I dug even deeper. I asked Mrs. Patrice ‘What do you want on the wall? What do you want to see every day? And what do you want it to represent?’”

The Story Behind The Mural’s Design

As for the concept, it’s inspired by a timeline design. “You have Mrs. Cleaves, The Bates, and Mrs. Patrice,” Danielle explains. “The first circle touches the last circle, in a cohesive timeline. I chose circles because they’re never-ending and continuous, just like the legacy of the Four Way.”

“I color-sampled the food,” she continues. “The orange hues are from the sweet potatoes, the golden-yellow color from the cornbread and catfish, the green from the greens and the tablecloths (the restaurant’s brand color), the teal is from light reflecting from the plates, and they were all such beautiful colors because that food is beautiful!” 

Four Way Soul Food / Alex Shansky

“Murals take a village and everyone was involved. While we were painting, people would stop by and ask us the hours and talk about the mural,” Danielle recalls. She tells me what ends up being my favorite story about the Four Way mural: 

“One Tuesday when the Four Way is closed, a man came by. He said he used to play basketball at LeMoyne Owen College and remembered eating there. He looked up at the wall and pointed to the first figure and asked, ‘Is that Mrs. Cleaves!? It looks just like her!’ He was so excited. That to me was so special. It’s a blessing.

The Four Way Is A Community Institution

Tonya Dyson is the Executive Director of the Slim House and a committee member for this project. I talked to her about the artist selection process and what the Four Way means to South Memphis and the city overall. 

“We liked Danielle’s storytelling, and the vivid, realistic portraits. It’s both traditional and whimsical,” Tonya says. “She took the very essence of everything about the restaurant and pulled it together to bring it to life.”

Tonya brought up the role the restaurant plays in the South Memphis community, too, noting that segregation and civil rights struggles in Memphis are an undeniable part of the Four Way’s story. 

“A lot of Black artists, like those coming through Stax, could only eat in certain places,” Tonya explains. “Four Way was one of those places. The original owner (Clint Cleaves) was known for bringing pans of cobbler to events and meetings. He fed Black leaders because they weren’t allowed in other venues. That within itself was a revolutionary act. In a way, he helped power the movement.” 

Tonya has a wonderful way of summarizing the final design and artwork, as approved by the current owners and family: 

“The art not only tells the story of Patrice and the Bates family, but even the people they purchased it from, the Cleaves. Decades worth of history displayed in one mural is good for the neighborhood, to see the connections. Soul music and soul food built that neighborhood. It’s a great joy.”

How To Support The Four Way

While Mrs. Patrice is happy and excited about the new mural, she also wanted me to talk about the realities of owning a restaurant during a pandemic. 

four way
Alex Shansky
L to R: Patrice Thompson, Jerry Thompson, Danielle Sierra, JoElle Thompson

“For me personally, it’s still hard and a big struggle,” she explains. “I have not gotten a paycheck since October, just to make sure that my staff are paid and taken care of. We have only ten employees outside of my immediate family, and they are all very dedicated and work extremely hard to make sure our products are consistent. And that our service is excellent.”

There are bright spots and encouraging moments amidst the difficulties, though. Here’s another one of my favorite stories, from Mrs. Patrice: 

“We had a lady come in from out of town. She finished eating and as she was leaving she suddenly stopped and yelled—she was very loud— ‘I want y’all to know that the service in this place…’ And we all looked at each other like, ‘is she bout to go off?!’ But she finished ‘...the service is absolutely wonderful! You all are great, every last one of you! I wish I could come back tomorrow!’ That day we only had three people up front, when normally we’d need 5 or 6. That type of feedback is very encouraging, despite the fact that we’re shorthanded.” 

What could change the situation, I asked. “If when we open our door at 11 a.m., from then until 4 p.m., we are filled with customers. And more consistent customers. And if I’m able to get more workers,” she answered.

She recalled a recent Saturday when the restaurant was very slow all day from 11 a.m. until around 1 p.m., when two busloads of people showed up at the same time. It makes it hard to plan for staffing when the diners come in like that. But they pulled it off, like they always do. 

Mrs. Patrice asked that I mentioned that the Four Way is hiring kitchen and front-of-house staff. Whitney told me earlier that Mrs. Patrice and her family work hard to accommodate their employee’s needs including transportation. They do need people who can work weekdays.

"The Four Way is a vital part of the Soulsville community,” Patrice continues, listing off a number of schools and organizations they provide food and support for when needed, including Metro Baptist Church, Lemoyne-Owen College, Cummings School, and the non–profit Knowledge Quest. “It’s rare that when we’re open, we don’t feed one or two people who need help. I’m not gonna let anybody go hungry.”

This is just one example—but it’s hard to get Mrs. Patrice to discuss things like this. 

She does not consider their community work and employment policies something to brag about, it’s just a part of what they do. They're continuing the Four Way’s legacy. Like her parents and the Cleaves before them, the Four Way family sees themselves as more than local business owners and the Four Way as more than a restaurant. 

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Richard Wilson

The Four Way is so important to the history of Soulsville - and so thankful they continue in these unprecedented times.

I love this place and get there as often as I can for the delicious food (turkey and dressing...yum!!)

Everyone needs to support this amazing and historical restaurant!

February 10, 2022 3:06pm