Smoke It Up BBQ

May 11, 2014 1 comment Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article talking wood smoked BBQ with Kelham Stephenson of Smoke It Up BBQ.

Potato spinner

20. What are hand-spun, sweet potato curly fries?

They're sweet potato fries we make on the truck. I buy all my produce fresh - I don’t do anything frozen. On the truck I have a spinner, which is a machine that’s mounted in the trailer. It allows us to lock the potato and hand crank the machine to run the potato through a cutting die to produce a round, curly fry. We deep fry the potatoes and coat them in our dry rub.

21. Have there been any surprises on the menu?

I was really amazed at how many people took to the pickles and the pork tenderloin.

Like I mentioned earlier, we wanted to do something that was sweet and tangy but we also wanted to get away from doing a dill pickle or a bread and butter pickle. That’s what people are used to; but we’re all about introducing people to new things when they come to our truck. If they try something different and it becomes a new sandwich for them, that’s fantastic, but every time someone comes to the truck we try to push them in a new direction. If you had pork last time then we want you to try the chicken this time. We want to get people to try as many of the items we cook as possible. We want them to experience different things and different flavors.

22. Are people adventurous or do they like to stick to their favorite items?

It all depends on the customer. Some people like to stick to something they know they’ll like. I have other people who come to me and tell me what they want to spend and ask me to make up something different. They don’t even pick from the menu. They just want something different from what they’ve had before.

Curly Fries

23. How did you learn to cook? Did you go to culinary school?

I started working in restaurants when I was 13. My first job was at an Italian restaurant as a dish washer and a busboy. About a year after I started at the restaurant I got really lucky when a spot opened up on the pasta line and I was able to step into that role, even though I was under the age of 16. I spent my years at that Italian restaurant. I moved around once I hit 18 and did different jobs in various kitchens, including prep, pantry and eventually a management role.

Growing up I always said that I’d never cook food for a living, that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had a hard time convincing myself to attend culinary school instead of an Arts based program but I signed up to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, which is a culinary based school that also offers hospitality management. I did 2 trimesters in the culinary program before switching into hotel and hospitality management. When I was in Providence I started working for Elaine at True Blue. That’s where I really learned about barbecue. In my second year at True Blue I was managing things. Elaine did the catering events on the weekend and I was running the truck. After completing my sophomore year in Providence I decided to transfer to the Johnson & Wales campus in Denver.

I finished my degree with a Bachelors of Science in Hospitality Management and started working at the Westin Hotel in downtown Denver where I focused on Guest Services and Security for about 3 years.

A few years ago I was in a really bad motorcycle accident and that was a really big wake up call for me. It made me question why I was working so hard and for so many hours for someone else. Everyone in my family has been self employed. My father’s an entrepreneur who owns his own business. I’m only 25 but it was one of those wake up calls that made me ask why I wasn’t working and doing something I really loved. I’ve always loved barbecue, even from a young age. It’s something I enjoy spending my time doing. I figured if I loved it that much, why not do it as a job?

In 2012 I started my own catering company. I wanted to work for myself so I invested in the smoker and went through the process of setting up a company.

24. What brought you to Jacksonville?

I had actually planned to open a business in Denver. I’d helped a few friends who were running a food truck when the Denver scene was taking off. I saw what my friends were doing and that really got me interested in having my own truck. After starting my catering business in Denver I actually bought a mobile kitchen there. Unfortunately I had a lot of issues with the builder and the trailer was never made food service ready. I’d been in Denver for 6 years and it was time for a change. I’m a big believer in travelling and living in as many places as you can and the opportunity arose to move to Jacksonville so I took it. My sister goes to Flagler College and my family visits the area a lot. My girlfriend also works for the Jaguars. Moving to Jacksonville was a natural choice and represented another opportunity for me.

I brought my catering business from Denver to Jacksonville and eventually decided to buy a whole new kitchen. It was a tough start at my expense and we have had a lot of big setbacks in the first year, but the catering has been steady since we opened and we have had a great first 3 months in the Jacksonville food truck scene.

25. Who’s your audience for catering?

We do a lot of different events including birthday parties, a lot of graduations, wedding receptions and backyard BBQs. We can drop off the food or we can do a fully inclusive event from setup to cleanup. We’ll tow the smoker in and bring the whole buffet line along with carving stations. We do it as a very interactive experience. People get to spend time around the smoker, the wood, the spices and the meat. It’s not just walking down a buffet line and grabbing some food. We can also build the food truck into a catering experience as well.

26. Have you found your locations for the truck?

We’ve found a few but we’re still looking. We’re still dealing with city issues about where you can and cannot park. In Denver we could serve at a parking meter for up to 4 hours as long as we fed the meter. That allowed us to serve people from the sidewalk. City council in Jacksonville has made us work a lot harder.

On Wednesday Nights we’ll do an occasional batch night at Aardwolf when they tap their limited batch beers. Alternatively, we may serve lunch at the Beaver Street Fisheries, which is a site we’re trying to build with the Jax Truckies. We also serve in St Augustine on Wednesdays.

On Thursdays we’re at Key Buick on the Southside for Lunch from 11-2. On Fridays we’re at PSS McKesson from 11-2. Saturdays we reserve for festivals and catering events.

Sundays we will be out on Food Truck Row at your Jacksonville Jaguars games!

27. What about the Beach?

We’d love to be at the Beach, but it’s a 45 minute drive for us. On top of that you have to register yourself as a whole separate entity to work at the Beach. That introduces a whole new set of startup costs and red tape we need to go through as a very small business. In time we’ll probably make it to the Beach but it’s not our top priority at this time. One other thing about the Beach is that they don’t allow a group of trucks to park together. From my experience in Denver I saw that when trucks could congregate together it worked really well to attract people to a single location, instead of being spread all around trying to bring in. When people know that a group of trucks will be at a certain spot at a certain time that makes it better for everyone.

28. Do you ever see Smoke It Up BBQ as a brick and mortar restaurant?

In the long run a brick and mortar would be nice although I really enjoy the mobile side of what we do. I like the fact that we can go onsite and set up a full party for someone at their house or at an event or a venue, and that we can transform that venue for someone. That’s the magic of what we do. Doing a brick and mortar is a whole different beast but it’s something I’d like to eventually tackle. There would still be ties to smoked meats, pickles, beer, whisky and bicycles - the good things in life!

Kelham Stephenson and Maren Jensen

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About the writer interviews are conducted by Jacksonville Beach resident Gerry Glynn. When Gerry isn't talking with restauranteurs he is working for a local software company, training for his next road race, and hanging out with his wife and dog.

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