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HOMETOWN U.S.A.: READING, OHIO

BarBe Q the mannequin lacks taste, some residents say

The bombshell out front KT's Barbecue attracts both customers and complaints. 'I had no idea a plastic doll would raise such a ruckus,' says Kenny Tessel, who credits her with saving his business.

July 16, 2009|P.J. Huffstutter

READING, OHIO — She stands 5 feet, 10 inches tall, a voluptuous bombshell in denim short shorts and a pink Hawaiian bikini top straining over with generous cleavage. Cars screech to a stop; drivers stare and point.

The statuesque woman, hawking smoked ribs for $18.95 a rack, doesn't wink or wiggle or even breathe. She's just a blond mannequin, standing on the sidewalk outside of KT's Barbecue restaurant.

Locals call her BarBe Q, and like her or not, she has become a hot topic in this blue-collar Cincinnati suburb.

BarBe Q was brought to town this spring by Kenny Tessel, owner of KT's Barbecue, who credits her with saving his business from the recession.

But even in this economically hard-hit city of 11,000, BarBe Q is just too much stimulus for some residents.

"My wife thought it was a hooker standing on the corner," said Chris Broerman, 51, a painter and construction worker who lives near KT's Barbecue. "It's absolutely appalling."

Tessel, 51, said he wasn't trying to upset anyone. "I just wanted to find a way to save my restaurant," he said. "I had no idea a plastic doll would raise such a ruckus."

Tessel, a television actor who left Los Angeles five years ago to be closer to family, had built a loyal following here for his $5.75 brisket and $4.99 pulled pork sandwiches.

But the recession has hammered Reading. Boarded up shops dot the area. The Chevrolet dealership moved away. So have a couple of bridal shops, where cardboard dress boxes still sit, pale gray and dusty, in the storefronts.

By spring, the number of people stopping by Tessel's takeout restaurant had fallen 40%.

"I figured I needed a gimmick to stop and draw in the people driving by," Tessel said. "I was flipping through a catalog for sandwich boards, and that's where I saw her."

She was model WL-25, a "European large bust" mannequin. Tessel bought her for $198, cleared off the sidewalk in front of the restaurant's glass front door and placed BarBe Q there at the end of March.

Dressed in a pink Hawaiian print bikini top donated by a friend's 18-year-old daughter and denim short shorts given to Tessel by his mail carrier, a mother of four, BarBe Q drew attention as well as customers; his business went back to what it was before the recession began.

But she also attracted complaints. Parents of students walking to a nearby religious school demanded that BarBe Q put on a shirt, according to Broerman. Some people wanted Tessel to get rid of her altogether.

When local newspapers reported on BarBe Q, city officials ordered Tessel to move the mannequin, pay for a $125 advertising permit and get a "certificate of appropriateness" from the city's design and review board.

Tessel dressed BarBe Q in a tank top and took her to the board meeting in May. The panel ruled that the doll could stay, but with one caveat: She had to wear more clothes.

Tessel appealed the decision earlier this month before the city's board of zoning appeals. He pointed out that several of the local bridal shops featured lingerie-clad mannequins, albeit with smaller bust lines and no heads. He also noted that a local strip club was snugged between the city's police station and Reading's main library branch.

BarBe Q has caused no traffic accidents, he told the board.

Tessel won the appeal, and BarBe Q is back on the block in her pink bikini top and denim shorts.

Broerman said he and his wife have started making plans to move. He can't stand the smoky scent of the restaurant -- or the view -- any longer.

On a recent afternoon, as Tessel loaded marinated chickens onto the smoker in the back, a line of customers stretched out the door and down the block.

"Things are so tough, and people are getting upset about her?" said Joann Sims, 70, as she ordered a pulled pork sandwich. "It's ludicrous."

Some took the opportunity to have a picture taken next to BarBe Q.

"I'm jealous," said Cookie Graff, 59, eyeing the mannequin. But "she really needs some high-heeled shoes to go with that outfit."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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