4 Barrel Barbeque History
My name is Jackson and I built my first barbeque pit the fall of 1985. I started going down and setting up in “ the hood” (the corners of Francis & High streets) on warm, summer weekends the following year. Well, here I was doing what everyone had told me was impossible; I was selling Barrel BBQ on the street corner. And I was doing pretty good doing it too. I had several $1,000.00 days out there on that dirty old street corner. It doesn’t sound like much today but back in those days a thousand bucks was still quite a bunch of money, especially considering that I didn’t have much in the way of expenses.
After getting my feet wet on the street corner, we started doing some of the small festivals in the Jackson area. I started with the Carp Carnival in Michigan Center and eventually did Summerfest, the Air Jubilee and the Civil War Muster as well. Doing these special events was a pretty good deal as long as the weather was good. However, all it took was one rainy day and a hundred hours of hard work went right down the drain, literally.
In the fall of 1987, Gene Davis Sr. stopped to see me down on the street corner. He wanted to know if I would consider working with them at their new place out on West Ave. In short, all I would have to do was provide them with BBQ and in exchange, I would have the use of all their facilities and some office space to boot. With another fine Michigan winter upon us, I felt the wise thing to do was to accept Gene’s offer and throw in with the Davis boys. This would accomplish three things; first, it would get me off the street corner and out of the weather. Secondly, it would give me the opportunity to watch some real food professionals at work. And last but not least, it would give me some time to figure out what I should do next.
My years with the Davis boys (1987-91) were very interesting, to say the least. I did, I learned a lot about the food business and a lot about life in general. Mr. Davis (Gene Sr.) is one of the best “food men” in the country. If it hadn’t been for Mr. Davis’ love of good ol’ Texas Barbeque, who knows where I would have ended up, I might still be on that street corner. Mrs. Davis (Delores) is one of the best cooks I’ve ever come across, period. Just the thought of her Golumpkis and meatballs is enough to make my mouth water. Mark is one of the best
public relations men ever to work a cash register. Mark knows thousands of Jackson folks by “face” and “name” and has an absolutely magnetic personality. Jelly (Gene Jr.) is an excellent butcher and one of the most experienced caterers in the Jackson area. While I never really got along very well with Jelly, I always respected his opinion and his capabilities.
Just after I started working with the Davis boys on West Avenue I started seeing one of the gals that worked for them, she was a great gal; her name was Christine Phelps. Chris and I hit it off pretty well and soon we were living together. Chris had a young son named Justin that was just “about as cute as a mouse’s ear”. Chris and Justin both did a ton of work in those early days, as hired help was a luxury I just couldn’t afford.
It was during my time on West Ave. with the Davis family that I started doing my famous West Texas Honey Glazed Hams. The hams were the perfect addition to all of the other holiday specialty foods that they did. I always sold enough hams to provide a good Christmas for Chris and Justin and I. This was also about the same time we started doing the bigger, out of town special events. Events like the Wyandotte Street Art Fair, the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival and River Fest in Lansing to name just a few. We received tremendous exposure doing these larger events because they drew huge crowds, some as large as 300,000 people. It wasn’t long before I started getting inquiries from people all over southeastern Michigan wanting to know if I could bring one of my “Texas Barbeque Pits” and cater their company picnic or wedding reception. It didn’t take a genius to figure out there was an opportunity here and soon I was testing the water by doing a few small catering jobs.
As I expanded into the catering business things became a little “tense” with the Davis’s on West Avenue. So, in the early spring of 1991, I went out and started scouting for a building of my own. One day while driving down Brooklyn Road, I noticed that Joe Gallias’s old sign shop was empty. I stopped and talked to the owners. They let me in so I could take a quick look around; the place was perfect! Forty by forty, square, no electric, no plumbing, no nothing! The place would take a lot of work but I felt it would be a perfect home for us.
With less than $500.00 to my name, I moved out of West Avenue and into the Brooklyn Road building in mid-February of 1991. I set-up a temporary office over in one corner and immediately called my old friend Jay D. Rodgers in Roanoke, Texas. Jay was pleased that I was finally out on my own. I told him that I was nearly broke and he said not to worry, he would loan me a little money to help me get started. He told me to figure out how much money I was going to need and let him know. It took me a couple of days to get my figures together but I soon had what I felt was a good, solid, workable plan. When I called Jay back, I told him I would need $20,000.00 to get things up and running. Jay asked if that was enough and I told him, I could make it work if I was careful. He said he’d send me a check. The next day the Federal Express man brought me a check from Jay for $20,000.00. I was now on my way!
My Dad, Howard and I went right to work renovating the new place. We did everything but the electrical ourselves. It took a little longer than I figured and it was one hell of a lot of work, but it sure looked great when it was done. We now had a beautiful new office, a great new prep area and plenty of storage. Now all we had to do was go out and go to work!
We did mostly special events that first year along with just a handful of caterings. The caterings we did were mostly all small affairs, never serving much over a hundred guests. However, it would only be a few years until we were regularly catering groups as large as a thousand guests. It was during this late nineties period that we tried doing some Saturday barbeques at the new facility. We would send out flyers saying we were going to have a “Big Ol’ Barrel BBQ” on Saturday the 15th (or whatever) and to please place your order as soon as possible. These Saturday barbeques did O.K., but they never did really catch on and we learned a good lesson; folks want food at their convenience, not ours.
The years 1999 through 2000 were not the best for the ol’ BBQ Man; Chris Phelps and I went our separate ways, Justin joined the Air Force and my right hand gal in the office; Darcy Kennedy ran off to Renton, Washington with a wild man.
As the years went by, we did fewer and fewer special events. They were just too much work and too risky. However, we continued to do more and more of the larger caterings, working for many of Michigan’s largest corporations, we’ve done work for Ford Motor Company, Chrysler Corporation, Eaton Corporation and Tenneco Automotive, just to name a few. In October of 2001, we catered our largest event ever serving 5,000 hungry guests at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor for their 150th anniversary. We have served many other U of M groups as well, including the Law School, School of Engineering, Business School, Life Sciences and Athletic Development. We had become very, very good at catering and it showed!
Change has been the keyword here at West Texas the last few years. While we still consider the catering of larger groups the mainstay of our business. The demands of the market have changed and so have we. We now do a whole lot more of the smaller catered events. Justin surprised me by calling and saying that he would like to come back to Jackson and help with the business. He returned home from the Air Force in early 2007 just in time to help us open the new “BBQ Joint”. The new “BBQ Joint” makes our great food easily accessible to everyone. John Q. Public can now walk in off the street and grab a sandwich, a slab of ribs or a couple of pounds of Beef Brisket.
Our new BBQ Joint isn’t real fancy; it was modeled after some of the BBQ Joints that I saw in Texas. The tables are mix and match and the chairs came out of a Mexican joint but the food and service is outstanding. And it’s just going to get better and better because it’s just like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get.
I can’t believe that I’ve been in business twenty-five years already. Time has really flown by; Justin is all grown up and married, Darcy Kennedy has come back home, Buster the BBQ Dog is old and crippled and I’m heading towards fifty-five! My God, I remember when I thought fifty-five was ancient. Anyway, one thing hasn’t changed, our commitment to providing our customers with Authentic Texas Style Pit Barbeque. I’ll probably work another twenty years or so and then I’ll pass the “torch” on to Justin and his family (better get to workin’ on that family, Bubba)…
Stop on by and give the new BBQ Joint a try. Or give us a call if you’re shopping for Catering or Holiday Specialties; we’re ready, willing and able to help…
Come visit us a Four Barrel Bar & BBQ. Bring a photo of your first car. We’ll be happy to buy your first beer.