BBQ is suddenly all the rage in Knoxville, and Dead End is all the rage with BBQ fans, winning its third consecutive Metro Pulse Best of Knoxville "Best Barbeque" honor in 2012. Co-owner (with Robert Nutt) George Ewart took a few minutes from his dual roles as architect and restaurateur to bring us up to reveal a few secrets to their success:
How come you started Dead End?
We opened in 2009, and we wanted to do something different than the others. We are unique—we do brisket, and no one else does that every day. We're introducing a new brisket sandwich: Big D's Beef and Bleu. We do barbecue nachos, pretty much a different one every day with different meats, and a loaded potato with chicken, brisket or pork. And we kicked up our sides, made them as special as our barbecue. Used to be you'd have to choose at a BBQ place: good sides or good BBQ, but not anymore.
How long have you been barbecuing?
I learned when I was probably about 14, in the backyard with my father: we had a BBQ pit in the backyard. A lot of our techniques were passed on from my dad, and passed on from his mother. Boston butts were one of my grandmother's favorite things to do. We use a BBQ sauce my grandmother developed, and while we've modified it over the years, I've still got the basic recipe on a 3 x 5 index card.
Does it involve brown sugar?
Of course. And ketchup. And some more personal ingredients.
Can you name just one of the "secret" ingredients?
Zataran's mustard. We also developed rubs and sauces on our cooking team. While we had to modify them all in a restaurant setting, 95-94 percent of what we do at the restaurant is the same thing we do competition-wise.
Did you really start all this on a suburban dead end?
Yes. My wife and I and two other families went out to dinner one night and all said, "Let's do something to get our neighbors together. Let's do a pig." We went out and got a pig, and organized our first pig roast on our neighborhood dead end—Summit Circle. Maybe 30 or 40 people came. By the last year we did it, 2011, around 500 came. That's what we try to base the restaurant on. Everybody brought their smokers and grills down to the dead end and we'd cook ribs, and chicken, and all taste it together. My daughter's been to every single pig roast since we started. Now she's at college in Chicago, and when I told her we were skipping the roast this year—we'll start it up again in 2012—she cried. It's been a big part of our children's lives; we really made it for them. Maybe as adults they'll start something like that in their own lives, in their own neighborhoods. We need a lot more of that going on in this world.
How'd you get from the neighborhood to competitive barbecuing?
I'm 51, and I've been barbecuing pretty much all my adult life, but I didn't really get into cooking BBQ for more than just having fun until 2000. People were telling us, "You guys are pretty good." We started reading up on it, and started locally in Townsend. Our first time out, there were six categories, and we won first in three: whole hog, dessert, and chicken.
Is it a hobby, or a money maker?
It's a competitive hobby; the Dead End team doesn't go out enough to make it worthwhile financially. You very rarely win the whole thing or even a category with everyone out there competing nowadays. I don't hunt or fish, so it's my hobby. And you get to catch up with some unbelievable people, including the guys on the team.. I've met people from all over the world at competitions—Estonia, Ireland, all over—and cooked at the Jack Daniels World BBQ Invitational.
How did you get chosen for that?
The Dead End team was state champs in 2007, and selected to represent the state in 2008. There are 11,000 BBQ teams in the U.S. and they take the Top 60 for that. Since then we've devoted a whole lot of time to the restaurant, and we've taken off from competing this year. We want to be back at those levels in a couple of years, but right now two of us have kids in sports who are seniors in high school, and we just want to have time to go see the games.
Do you think your kids will want to barbecue?
My son Alec's been to a couple of competitions. I think he'll probably pick it up. He also does a lot of cooking around the house. I haven't really thought about the kids getting into the business. My daughter works here as waitress, and it's always tough when you work for a parent. I guess I hope they choose to forge their own lives.
What do you like to eat at Dead End?
I'm a brisket fan. I come in here and my staple is a brisket plate with mixed greens, and mac 'n' cheese. But we've now got Robert's Mac Attack, and it's one of our top sellers. It's mac 'n' cheese with pork and caramelized onions on toasted sourdough. I like it, and you won't have to eat all day if you eat that thing.
Have you ever experimented and come up with a real clunker?
We had a lot of things like that in competition. That's what you do; try things out and get judged by professionals. In the early days, we were experimenting a lot, and the judging wasn't always positive. As far as the restaurant goes, though, everything has succeeded. The bacon-wrapped shrimp is probably the least ordered appetizer, but even it is still pretty good.
Has your other job, as an architect, shaped the business?
I was my own client on this project, so we were able to do cool things on the building we couldn't if I wasn't an architect. On the outside, we've tried to stand out a little bit. On the inside, it's more of a home feeling, a relaxing atmosphere—how it might feel on a dead end street. And we've exposed the process. We make sure everybody sees what's going on back there; opened up the cooking lines. If you're going back to the restrooms, you have to walk right by them, so there's lots of energy all the time. And being an architect, you have to be able to move from one thing to another; you might be working on a hospital one day, the next an industrial plant. I think that helps with the restaurant business. You've got to be able to shift around.