Consider the fact that the gentlemen of Big Daddy’s never wanted a restaurant, and you’ll get some insight into why their barbecue tastes so pure.
Ron Whyte and Bob Edmond, each in smart glasses, with gray hair and beards, their polo shirts tucked primly beneath their Big Daddy’s emblem sweatshirts, aren’t exactly what you’d expect as barbecue slingers. They don’t emerge from the kitchen in sauce-smeared aprons, and while Whyte is gregarious, Edmond is as composed as they come. A third partner, Gene Sampson, the literal Big Daddy in the equation (“He’s as round as this,” says Whyte, fitting his hands about a round table), has been out of the business for years.
The men, once including Sampson, were two Honeywell employees and a Control Data salesman. They barbecued on weekends to blow off steam. But anyone who knows anything about barbecue knows that good smoked meat is not a secret that can be kept for long.
“The smoke was its own advertisement,” says Edmond, who keeps a stone face every time I attempt to get a trade secret, technique, or ingredient out of him.
“We probably would have stayed outside forever if it weren’t for the health department,” he tells me in one of the few disclosures of our interview.
Hailing from smallish towns in Kentucky and Georgia, respectively, Whyte and Edmond grew up comfortable around food and cooking. Whyte remembers his mom smoking mutton, a traditional regional dish, and Edmond spent summers on his family’s farm, “around the pigs and the cows.”
They came up north following the lead of friends and relatives, in search of better work and a better life for their families. They found it. On weekends, they’d smoke a little meat. “Men were just supposed to get outside and cook meat,” said Whyte. Amen.
So these men cooked, and people followed the smoke signals. First to the park, then to fairs and festivals, then to big contests, which the three won. Soon, they were smoking meat on the corner of University and Dale on Friday night, and Saturday too, in order to keep up with demand. People came into town every weekend for a taste, lining up by the hundreds. And then naturally, the health department came calling.
“They said, all of these businesses around you have licenses, roofs, hoods, and all the rest,” Edmond recalls. “You’re going to have to get it too.”
Through “attrition” at their day jobs — one man lost a job, another retired, another had increasing amounts of time off — they acquiesced to the call of the ’cue. They got a storefront kitty-corner to their parking-lot space, and promptly lost 75 percent of their business.
Gone was the free, billowing advertisement of the smoke, the tailgating, the “something about it” outdoor nature of barbecue, and, perhaps most importantly, the charcoal and wood they were accustomed to working with. Now, they had walls, and a hood, and gas, all things entirely new. They had to reverse-engineer the product to match the beloved one to which their vast customer base had grown accustomed. It took a long time. But they did it.
The business is back up. They’ve expanded down the block to a second, brighter, sunnier storefront. They say it’s impossible to know what percentage of their customer base is regulars, or how many have been with them since the days of the parking lot, but it’s a lot. Over 30 years’ worth.
Traditionally, there have been only a few names in local barbecue, with varying degrees of quality, and Big Daddy’s has always emerged at the top. Say “barbecue” around here, and “Big Daddy’s” is bound to follow. At least, if you know what you’re talking about.
If you do, then you know to come here for the pork ribs and rib tips, the house specialty, available by the “dinghy,” “boatload,” and “shipload.” The heavily smoked hickory meat slides off the bone in plush morsels. This pile between you and a companion disappears the way a bucket of shared popcorn does — quickly.
But Big Daddy’s is known possibly just as well for the Flintstone sandwich, which they arrived at by accident, after bringing home a box of what they thought were beef back ribs. Instead, they unpacked a load of beef short ribs, which they were unfamiliar with. They smoked them anyway, and started serving the whole slab on a bun. The bone-in portion was so cartoonishly huge, it came to be known as the Flintstone. Now they serve it in slightly more human portions and without the bones, but it’s no less delicious: supple, beautifully smoke-ringed, and the perfect way to get your barbecue on the move.
Pulled pork is succulent and seasoned with warm spice complexity and available by the pound. Chicken, bronzed with smoke, is available by the quarter, half, and whole bird. If you don’t want to fuss with bones, it can be pulled, too.
Whatever you do, don’t overlook the sides. They’re served in small portion cups (at small prices), but go pro and order collard greens, mac and cheese, and slaw by the pint. Our favorite is the bewitching beans, with a secret ingredient that, not surprisingly, I’m never quite able to shake out of Edmond.
“We’ve been working on that bean recipe for at least 15 years,” Whyte offers. “There’s a lot of things in them.”
“Yes. But what’s the secret? Is it gumbo powder? Filé?”
“No,” says Edmond.
“You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
Eventually, he offers: “It’s Italian seasoning.”
And so it goes.
They’ve spent half a lifetime perfecting these recipes, and they aren’t going to give them away for a song.
Have they been able to hire help that will maintain the legacy of Big Daddy’s, to devote the time, attention, and energy it takes to uphold their rigorous standards of consistency?
You guessed it.
Edmond emphasizes the utmost importance of consistency, of making sure what you get this week is going to be the very same thing that you got the last. “Even if it’s bad, it’s got to be the same.”
Though you’re not likely to get anything bad at Big Daddy’s.
When stripped down to its essence, barbecue is arguably the most personal cooking technique there is. A guy (sometimes a gal) takes a hunk of meat and babies it for many hours in the open air. Then, another guy walks up in that open air, and buys it off the first, hand to hand, eye to eye.
At Big Daddy’s, you still get that. From the man’s hand, to yours. Even though the health department made them put up walls, they can’t take away the purity.
Check out more photos of Big Daddy's smoked mastery here.
Big Daddy’s BBQ
625 University Ave. W., St. Paul