Alton Porter, owner of Porter’s Place Southern Cuisine & BBQ, has died.
His heart, probably for the first time in his life, failed him.
Porter, 45, was legendary in Tacoma for his Southern-style barbecue. He was beloved for his generosity, modesty and simple kindness. When he chose between investing in the community or his family’s security, he chose the community.
“My father didn’t have any life insurance,” said his daughter, Elizabeth Porter, 19.
What he gave away in a month would have covered premium costs, but the giving was a way of life, a joy he would not cut.
There is no telling how many people he fed at his own cost. Thousands enjoyed turkey feasts, he, his wife, Patrice, and their five children cooked and served at Emergency Food Network’s free Thanksgiving dinners. Tacoma Power repair crews ate breakfast, lunch and dinner free at his restaurant during last winter’s snow and ice storm outages. Fellow parishioners at the Church For All Nations, where he and his children also volunteered, celebrated with the meals he catered.
Even salesmen ate for free at Tacoma’s four versions of Porter’s Place, said his friend Jim Wick, who has owned It’s Greek to Me for 20 years.
“If there ever was a guy you could count on, he was the one,” Wick said. “He was unbelievably generous. He had a big heart, not big enough for his body, but big enough for the whole world, I think.”
Born in Renton to a barbecuing family with Louisiana roots, Porter learned the secrets of slow smoke and searing spices at his father’s auto shop and ribs place, Dixie’s Barbecue in Bellevue.
He also learned to make The Man, his father’s flamethrower dipping sauce. He brought The Man to Tacoma in 1994 when he started his own restaurant on East Side’s Portland Avenue. Since then, he’s moved to the Dome District, had a booth at Safeco Field, then settled in at 5026 South Tacoma Way. Moving costs to the newest, and well-reviewed, restaurant were high, said Elizabeth. The family invested everything in it, she said, and business is only now picking up from a slow time.
Thursday morning, Porter went in early to turn on the ovens and order food. His wife and daughter Tracey Porter found him two hours later. They think he died of a heart attack or undetermined heart condition.
“There was no backup plan,” said Steve Hurter, who grew up with Porter in Renton. “I always call him a larger-than-life heart. He has always been a community leader and giver.”
He was all go, and all optimism, said his friend and former Emergency Food Network director David Ottey. On Thanksgiving, he was the force behind the food.
“He brought all his people in including his kids and the folks who worked with him. He carried it off,” Ottey said. “We worked like that for years. He was so affable. That was the thing about him. He always was up.”
At Church For All Nations, Porter was always thinking, always planning in the youth ministry, assistant executive director Jay Forde said. He wanted to start after-school programs for kids.
Now his own children are in a bad spot, said Elizabeth. There’s no money in the bank, she said, what with the restaurant’s move and a slow season. They are deciding whether they can continue to operate the restaurant. For now, the restaurant is closed until Tuesday, at least.
The restaurant could sustain the family, provided customers support it.
But that will not bury Alton Porter.
“Maybe the sports teams may help us pay for a casket,” Elizabeth said, “We used to be at Safeco.”
Tacomans would be a better bet, Forde thinks.
Church For All Nations will host a memorial July 11.
“We are trying to create a memorial fund,” he said. “We are building a link on the home page, churchforallnations.org.”
The aim, he said, is to help sustain the family, as the family has helped sustain Tacoma.firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8677 blog.thenewstribune.com/street