While there's currently a barbecue binge going on in the Knoxville dining scene, decades ago there were but a handful of BBQ destinations in town. While the legendary Brother Jack's is no more, there are veteran barbecue joints that are soldiering on to this day. Here are some of the old-timers of Knox BBQ, and their stories and some of their secrets.
Original Ott's Bar-B-Q
Casey Edgemon, who owns Ott's with wife Amy
Years in business: The original store with owners Bick and Caroline Frost opened on Kingston Pike in 1961 and closed early this century; the new version opened at that site in 2007, closed, and then moved to Northshore/Bearden in March of 2012
Style: Traditional North Carolina, with mostly vinegar-based sauces
BBQ motto: "Good food, good music, clean restaurant. That's all we know to do."
Where we learned. "I grew up across the street from the original owners; Ott's was almost completely at the end of Kingston Pike, on the Loudon County/Knox County line. It was part of my childhood, my family-- from the time I was 7 I was making sandwiches over there. And I've been smoking meats as a hobby since I was a teen. Kevin Badgett, the Hollywood Pork Slinger, he's cooking our barbecue. He's the meat man and takes pride in that nickname. He's also from Knoxville, went to Central, and has a cousin who cooks for M&M, so barbecue is in his family as well as mine. We're cooking pretty much same thing the Frosts had been doing since 1961. Caroline's father is where all the recipes came from; he was the original Ott. If it wasn't for Hollywood there'd be all kind of trouble here at Ott's. Neither my wife or I has ever owned a restaurant—or worked at one! I was in the energy biz and she used to cut hair."
From start to finish: "The barbecue takes 15-16 hours—that's how long the pork stays on there, and the ribs about four hours."
Biggest fan: "Mike Price, an ex-UT football player. He has adopted us and Ott's. We've got a baloney burger, and if he's within 10 miles he's coming over to get one."
Sauce secrets: "Yeah, they wouldn't be secrets if I told... There is literally one I won't say, but being North Carolina style we're obviously vinegar based. Not everyone is crazy about it, so we have one that's thicker, tomato based. We worked with T Ho in town at first. We had some of Ott's original sauce and they broke that down. That's my favorite, it is as close as we could get. And we offer five other sauces."
Favorite competitors? "That's the thing with barbecue. Some will love us, some might hate us. I think Dead End and Sweet P's do a great job, and M&M. They do a really good job, but we've got different styles of barbecue and I'll never copy them. Like Dead End adding Mac and Cheese to a sandwich, I thought, "Great idea!" But I'd never do it. As for our customers, it's your tongue, everybody has their own favorite. We do our own thing, and we try to perfect it."
Detractors? "Oh yes. We want people to sample the vinegar-based sauce before they ever put it on a sandwich and some taste the original and it's not what they're wanting. They look at us like, 'How can you do that?' For them we have the sweet sauce. People get excited and make suggestions. Friday there was a guy in here talking about we need to do rice; they use rice in barbecue in South Carolina. I'll try it—I'll try anything. I don't know if it will make it on to the menu though."
New on the horizon: "We call it our ‘lab' in there. The smoker's called Pig Pen; it's a big old beast that weighs 6,000 pounds. Amy, the Hollywood Pork Slinger and I all tinker, we're all involved with the food. We'll get in there and at the spur of the moment, Kevin will try something crazy, and we'll say, "Yeah, let's make that a special." One of the things we're working on is doing turkey on Sundays. Or a fish fry. We already have a daily special every day. One that we've been running a couple of days a week is the Lonsdale Ham sandwich, what Kevin grew up with, a baloney sandwich on toasted bread."
When the owner eats at Ott's: "Heh. The whole time growing up my favorite was the ham and cheese. It's the best you'll ever eat, with the combination of the ham holding the hickory smoke so well, and the way we press and toast the buns. It's unbelievable. But I will say this. The Hollywood Pork Slinger created something he calls the rib sandwich, and it's getting close to being my favorite. It's one of the ways we've deviated from the original Ott's. We've got to add to the menu, to keep up."
Today Buddy's Bar-B-Q is a Knoxville institution, with 15 East Tennessee restaurants, 12 of them company-owned, a full-service banquet hall and three cafes, two at Oak Ridge National Laboratories and one at Scripps Networks. But in 1972 Knoxville was nothing like the barbecue stronghold it is today, and Buddy (pictured above) and LaMuriel Smothers were just trying to give the area another option, one more suited to their tastes. Suzanne Lindsey, the couple's daughter, is now Buddy's marketing director; husband Reed is a vice president and brothers Mark and Michael are president and TKTK respectively, while sister-in-law Virginia directs bookings and catering. On the occasion of Buddy's 40th anniversary, here is Lindsey's take on what a big difference a little barbecue joint can make:
Life in the restaurant biz: "They put me to work when I was 10 at the Pixie Drive-In, before we had anything to do with barbecue. The restaurant is all I've known my whole life; even through college I worked on the weekends, in catering, or at the Bearden Store, wherever we were needed. When my second child was born I really got involved. I needed the flexibility, and this helped me do meaningful work and still be an active mom. It worked out beautifully. Buddy's is still family owned and operated, and I think that's part of our success—the family stayed involved and the community knows that."
In the beginning: The Smothers began with a franchise from a barbecue outfit out of Alabama, but soon realized they had better ideas of their own—and better recipes, particularly for sauce, a brown sugar-tart-sweet-spicy mix. "They let the customers decide what the signature sauce was going to be like. We kept sampling at the restaurant until we settled on one. We also got really involved in the catering side. About that time, Jake Butcher was running for governor, and he was hosting all these political parties and events. He came to talk to Dad and told him, ‘You need to handle the parties for me.' That's how the catering got started."
Next? "It's interesting, all of us kids in my family had girls. None of them were the least bit interested in the business until my girls (now ages 22 and 25) came along. My oldest, Kendall, has a degree in interior design, but she was always at the restaurant, during high school and even now while she's going after a second degree at UT. I don't know what the future would hold, but she would be the one to move forward once we want to get out. What we've done in the past 10 years, and definitely the past five, is really focus on the restaurants we have and making them better. When you've been around 40 years, it's a constant job just to keep up with updates and repairs—taking care of what we've got. I think our future down the road would be franchising. We don't need to franchise in our own area, but we could go farther out and really get in a position the next couple years, move forward that way. Who knows what will happen? But the growth potential is there, and the money. Of course, we could stay right where we are and still have our hands full."
Buddy's Race Against Cancer: Now in its 20th year, the Buddy's-sponsored 5K and walk began in honor of Buddy Smothers, who died of a melanoma, and had been treated at the beneficiary institution, Thompson Cancer Survival Center. "Are there people who know of the race and have never even been to Buddy's? Probably so. The first year we held it, a lot thought it was just about being a pal, a buddy. And so we changed the logo to say BBQ and now people know it's about our founder. After he'd died, a friend was being treated at Thompson Cancer Survival Center. She called me when she just had months to live and said, ‘This would be the perfect role for you, for Buddy's to take the reins of this race, to move it forward, to make sure people know how important screenings are.' When we first got involved in the race, the family was still freshly grieving. We needed an outlet, something to help make sense of what happened to my dad, and the whole family got involved. I can't believe after all these years we've raised $5 million. It's pretty awesome the way it's touched lives and saved lives. I think Dad would be pretty proud."
Scrugg's Real Pit Bar-B-Que
John Roberts, who owns and operates Scruggs with wife Virginia and daughter Janet Morgan
Years in business: Since 1974
Style: "Yeah, it's called good old barbecue. I'm just kidding. Country style? It's an Alabama-Mississippi mix."
BBQ motto: "We want you to feel welcome and let you know real fast that we're not the best, but we try hard. Everyone always thinks they're the best, but I say, ‘If mine agrees with your palate, then by golly come on and eat with us.'"
Where we learned: "I was the first teacher they hired in 1969 when they desegregated and consolidated at Vine. Ambrose Kirk went in the same day; he was from Okalona, a little town in Northern Mississippi near Memphis. We've been friends since then. Oh hon, he had to teach me, I didn't know a thing about barbecue. I've been on the receiving end of everything., a fellow named Guy Scruggs also helped me learn. Ambrose's mother, a fantastic cook, I was telling her I had a condemned building next to the liquor store I owned on Magnolia and was going to turn it into a barbecue joint. She said, ‘I'll make your sauce.' We still have a little sauce kitchen, that's all we use it for. And no ma'am, we haven't changed anything about that sauce or our barbecue since we opened up."
From start to finish: "It comes in sections. First we prepare by soaking the ribs and pork in a solution kind of like apple cider vinegar. The reason you want to soak is it breaks down the enzymes in the meat and makes it tender. Then we pull it out and put it on the pit for about three hours for the ribs and 10 hours for the Boston butts and beef. It's pretty hot on the pit; you have to judge the meat you cook instead of the cooking times. The next part, we pull the ribs, chill them, cut them, and put them in a pan at 350 degrees and bake it. We still haven't put the sauce on yet. When you come in and want to eat, we ask ‘hot, medium, or mild?' and put the sauce on the ribs—then it's eating time, honey. That's the way we do it. There are probably lots better ways of doing it than what we do, but we've been able to pay our utility bill every month so I guess we're doing something right."
Biggest fans: "A lot of folks who work at KUB across the street come in all the time. I also have two or three generations of my ex-students from when I taught at Vine who trade with me. (I taught there 35 years, starting out with science and math, and even taught a year of typing.) It's mostly our community, which is kind of phenomenal. With a white barbecue and a mostly black community, we turned the tables on ‘em. But my customers work with me, we have a lot of fun: they think I'm crazy, and I am."
Sauce secrets: "Molasses. Mostly molasses. And dried onions, and pickle spices. What really makes our sauce is those ingredients. And I don't mind telling people what's in there. I think you could come up and help me make it and it still wouldn't be the same if you tried it yourself."
When the owner eats at Scruggs: "I just got finished eating some ribs and they were really good. I liked them today because I was extremely hungry."
New on the horizon: Absolutely nothing. "Since 1974 we've used the same spices. We make sauce same way, cook the ribs, pork, beef, and chicken the same way. We haven't changed anything. That's why people come in. They expect something, and they get it when they get here."
The original Calhoun's BBQ Barn first opened in October 1983, and they've been wafting wonderful smoke ever since, now with eight locations, two of them in Knoxville. Current COO for the Copper Cellar family of restaurants Bart Fricks comments on select aspects of the journey:
The art of barbecue: "The pulled pork is an overnight process. We obtain hickory from Crossville, Tenn., and load the smoker the night before. Our ribs are smoked twice a day, an average of 2-3 hours. That's the thing about barbecue—with a hamburger, you can throw it on the grill and expect it to be medium after four minutes per side. But smoking, it depends on the humidity, the heat of the smoker, how thick the meat is. There are no exacts for smoking proteins; it's an art form, getting it right time after time."
Those were the days: "When they first opened in October 1983, off Pellissippi, they were the restaurant that was furthest west in Knoxville. There was no Turkey Creek, Cedar Bluff wasn't developed at the time; the closest sit-down restaurant was probably Ruby Tuesday's. To go that far out west, and then do a barbecue restaurant, was fairly bold—and a lot different from the restaurants the group already had, including Copper Cellar and Chesapeake's. Some of the existing patrons were a bit skeptical, and it was a slow takeoff."
Best Ribs in America: A few months later, owner Mike Chase saw something about a contest in Cleveland, Ohio, to establish the makers of "The Best Ribs in America." "They dropped everything and went up and entered. They concentrated on not just putting out the best product, but putting on a show, with loud music and having a good time. Each night they'd be altering the recipe, because it was judged each day. They won, the 1984 Best Ribs in America title, and when they came back to Knoxville, the restaurant really took off, too."
Next? "We've been around a long time, and our guests expect consistency. With our food, we like to keep the tried and true, and work on doing what we do better than anyone. That's what we really spend our time on. Outside of food, you're going to see Calhoun's become the location for Vol Calls radio program this fall—Calhoun's on the River."