Owner: Smokey Joe’s BBQ; Opened 1985
Smoker: Wood-fired Brick Smoker
Thirty years is a long time to keep a barbecue joint going, but Chris Manning wasn’t even born when Smokey Joe’s opened in 1985. The twenty-four year old swore he wouldn’t work in the barbecue joint. He went to college to find another path, but he came back. Now his dad is focused on his home building business, Joe Melton, the namesake of Smokey Joe’s, is retired, and Chris is the new owner.
Smokey Joe’s is take-out only, and you’ll place your order at the small counter built into a doorway. Siretha Davis runs the register and makes the excellent buttermilk pies too. From that doorway you can watch pitmaster Earl Harris at work in the brick pit.
The confines of this small, converted gas station are limiting, which is why Manning is looking to expand the business. He hopes to have a new sit-down restaurant open next year on the same site.
Daniel Vaughn: You’re the current owner, but who opened Smokey Joe’s?
Chris Manning: It was my dad, Kenneth Manning, and Joe Melton. They were the original founders of Smokey Joe’s in 1985. Prior to this building being a barbecue place, it was a gas station. They converted it because they thought it was a good location just off the highway. Joe was the guy who did all the cooking. He brought my dad to the barbecue business. He had the recipes for the ribs, beef, beans, potato salad, sauce…pretty much everything.
DV: Those are the same recipes you’re using today?
DV: Did your dad have any problems with the name just being Smokey Joe’s?
CM: Not really because Joe taught him everything about the barbecue business.
DV: When they purchased it, what did they have to do to convert it?
CM: They took the tanks out up front, then they did a little remodeling inside. We’re actually about to do a remodel. We’ll tear this building down.
DV: The building we’re in? You’re tearing it down?
CM: I know. It’s the same barbecue though. Nobody needs to freak out. We’ll have a dine-in with a sports bar and grill.
DV: How long will this building remain here?
CM: We’re starting it in March. We’ll stay open while we do all of it. We’re going to tear down all those back buildings. We’re going to build there, then this area will be parking.
DV: I’m thinking what a cool building this is, but I’m sure working in here all you’re thinking is how tiny it is.
CM: Yeah. I just think about how many places I go where I don’t sit down and eat. Not many. It’s about to be 2015.
DV: Who built the pit in here?
CM: Joe and my dad built it.
DV: Where did they get their knowledge in barbecue and pit building?
CM: They both worked at a car shop growing up. A guy named Charlie taught Joe who passed it on to my dad. Charlie had all the recipes. He passed away, but he was an amazing cook.
DV: Did your dad and Joe both grow up here in Dallas.
CM: Yes. They grew up right down the street from each other. They both worked at the car shop together.
DV: Did they leave that business to open the barbecue joint?
CM: Exactly. They had both gotten older. Joe said he’d like to start a barbecue restaurant, but he didn’t have the funds to invest in it. He brought my dad in and told him “I found a good spot, and I got a good deal on it. All we’ve got to do is put up some money.” My dad helped him with that part, and he taught my dad how to cook.
DV: Did he tell you how much he paid for it back in 1985?
CM: I don’t know.
DV: You’re kinda on the outskirts here in Dallas being south of Loop 12. What was around here thirty years ago?
CM: You know, thirty years ago it used to be outta hand up here. When I was growing up you couldn’t come in during the weekend when we didn’t have so many call-ins there was nowhere to put the tickets. On top of that we didn’t have any room. We had one person who’s job it was to cook the meat and nothing else. We had one person cutting, then two table people on either side packing up orders, and another person working the register. There was a line wrapping around the building. It used to be hectic, but the economy got bad. We’re coming back up though. We’re trying to get back to that level.
DV: Who’s the man working the pits?
CM: That’s the famous cook right there. Earl Harris. He can do it all.
DV: Did he take over for Joe?
CM: Well, you used to need two cooks. Joe would work during the day and Earl did the nights.
DV: Do those pits ever go out?
CM: No. The briskets smoke overnight. They take about nine hours. During the day we smoke ribs, links, and chicken.
DV: How long does it take to smoke the ribs here?
CM: Two or three hours.
DV: I see there’s no black pepper, and it’s mainly salt in the seasoning. Can you share anything else?
CM: I can’t tell you.
DV: Do you season them the night before?
CM: We season them about thirty minutes before. Some do sit overnight. It’s the pit and the hickory that give them that flavor.
DV: It’s all hickory?
DV: You have short-end ribs on the menu. Can you explain what those are?
CM: You’ve got your basic rack of ribs. You get the ribs toward the front that have more meat and less gristle. That’s why they cost more.
DV: It’s a premium product.
CM: Exactly. It’s kind of on the level of a baby back rib. I like short end ribs better.
DV: Is that what you eat?
CM: Oh yes.
DV: You also have East Texas links on the menu. Do you like those things?
CM: They’re great. When I first tried them it was a little bit different. We hadn’t served them in about ten years, and when I took over from my dad I put them back on the menu. We had a lot of people asking for them. Ever since, they’ve been a hot commodity. I love them with crackers and hot sauce. I do like Smokey Denmark’s over them though.
DV: Where do you get the East Texas links?
CM: They come from Pittsburg, Texas, but we get them from the packing house on Malcolm X.
DV: In South Dallas, I see those Smokey Denmark’s links a lot as well as sauces similar to your recipe. They’re thinner and not too sweet.
CM: That’s been the recipe forever. I was going to switch up the sauce, but then I love the sauce. You just have to make it right. It can’t be too watery or too thick.
DV: What’s the recipe?
CM: [Laughing] I gotta hold on to that one.
DV: Do you ever go eat other people’s barbecue around town?
CM: I do. I need to know my competition. I feel like I can do nothing but learn from them. A good place like Pecan Lodge, they have amazing barbecue. The line is crazy, but you have to give respect. They have amazing barbecue.
DV: You enjoy it, but it’s quite a bit different than your barbecue.
CM: True, but you can tell they put time into their barbecue.
DV: You now own the business, so did your dad retire?
CM: Joe and my dad are both retired. They retired last March.
DV: Did they retire because you came back into the business, or did they come to you to gauge your interest?
CM: I grew up working here all my life. I always said I wasn’t going to work here. That was always my mentality. I went off to college at Sam Houston State. I graduated with a degree in criminal justice and kinesiology. I didn’t want to be a cop, and I realized I didn’t want to sit at a desk in corporate America. I was thinking about getting into law, but then my dad came to me. He builds houses now, and he and Joe wanted to retire from barbecue. He was saying “we’re looking at you to see if you wanted to take over.” I was thinking I just got out of college, and I’m not ready to work there. I was being arrogant, I guess. I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but it wasn’t going to fly out there and hit me. He came to me again and I started looking at the numbers. I didn’t come out of college to make no money. There were certain agreements we had to make. I want to take it to another level that it should have been taken to a long time ago.
DV: Do they have any issues with the changes you’ve proposed since you took over?
CM: No. They were fine as long as I use the same wood and the same kind of pit. The pit has to have a draft, we have to make the food taste the same. I know there are people who like the hole-in-the-wall feel to it and think it’ll never be the same.
DV: There will certainly be regulars who will swear the new place is never as good.
CM: I know they’re gonna say it.
DV: Are you going to bring Joe out of retirement to build the pit for you?
CM: We’ll figure that out. I know a guy who builds them, but I don’t know if Joe wants to do all that.
DV: It’ll be interesting to know if the city has any issues with permitting a newly built brick pit.
CM: I don’t think it is. We’re still working on getting the permits.
DV: So many people go buy a gas-fired rotisserie because it’s easier to install and permit. Will you consider doing that?
CM: No. We’re going to recreate the pit.
DV: This building has managed to stay here without burning up.
CM: Well, we did have a fire, but it wasn’t from the pit. It was an electrical fire.
DV: When was the fire?
CM: 2003, I think. [He calls in pitmaster Earl Harris]. Earl, when did the fire happen?
Earl Harris: That was back in ’03 or ’04.
DV: How did you hear that it was on fire?
EH: We have an alarm. We have a good relationship with the fire department down there, and they called us to say the alarm went off. There’s an electrical junction that caught on fire. It didn’t burn the pit, but it got everything else.
DV: So, has this interior been repaired?
CM: Yeah, repaired [laughing].
EH: Remodeled [laughing]. The whole building has been remodeled.
DV: Earl, when did you start working here?
EH: In 2000.
DV: Did you know how to barbecue before you came here, or did you learn on the job?
EH: I learned working here.
DV: Did you start as a pit man?
EH: I started at the bottom, in the sinks. Business was booming back then. We sold a lot of ribs. We’d bring them in frozen and break them down to get them ready. That’s what I did and just kept moving on. I’ve been here ever since.
DV: How did you start working the pits?
EH: Necessity. We were short on hands. The pit is the sort of thing that if you can handle it you’ve gotta keep that guy there. I guess I was a pretty good worker, so they started teaching me how to cook. I just grabbed it. I did the floating for about a year. I picked it up in about six months. Once I learned it, another guy quit and they needed me to work nights. After a while it became second nature.
DV: What do people order here mostly?
CM: Ribs and potatoes.
EH: Ribs and beef are the top two meats. We open at 11:00, and when they come in that door they expect ribs.
DV: Do most orders include ribs?
EH: About every other has a rib sandwich or an order of ribs. Beef is picking up a bit more lately.
DV: How many ribs do you go through in a day?
EH: We do about six boxes a day. On the weekends it’s ten to twelve.
DV: How many racks are in a box?
CM: Nine slabs in a box.
DV: That’s ninety to a hundred racks of ribs on the weekends. That’s a lot of shuffling in the pit.
EH: On Friday and Saturday we don’t stop. We can’t stop.
DV: I see you close at 11:00, and a lot of places in the area were once open much later. Did you used to open later?
CM: When it started it was 2:00am, then we moved it up to 12:00. You have that area of time when people are in the club, and you want that after the club rush, but it’s dead then it jumps off in that last hour. So you’re just sitting up here waiting. Earl knows first hand.
DV: Earl, you know about the club life?
EH: I know about taking the club people’s money. We used to stay open to 2:00, but the other businesses started to leave and we were the only ones out here. When the crowd left we would clean up, lock up, and leave. That would be around 12:00 or 1:00. If we stuck around until 2:00 we might make another hundred dollars and taking a chance we’d get robbed. Later it came down to 11:00 for security reasons.
DV: Have you ever been robbed?
EH: Nope. That’s a blessing.
CM: That’s one thing we haven’t had to deal with, knock on wood.
EH: We’re good with the neighborhood. If somebody hungry knocks on the door we’ll usually help them out. You need to keep a good rapport. Nobody says “I’m gonna rob that guy” when you give him a sandwich.
DV: I notice you have some competition just a few doors down [H&J BBQ is just three doors up the access road from Smokey Joe’s].
CM: I don’t worry about it, honestly. There’s always going to be another barbecue place. If you know you serve good food, and you know you’re doing things right, people are going to come here.