Tuesday, December 23, 2008

‘Cued up for success — Barbecue is Davis family tradition at the Pit in Kenai

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Sure, making money is nice, especially for a fledgling business like the Pit BBQ in Kenai trying to survive its first winter. But if you really want to make owner Dwight Davis happy, tell him you like his food.

“I feel just as good when a person tells me how good it is and is sincere about it. That’s just as good as getting paid,” Davis said.

Davis and his wife, Helen, started the Pit BBQ this summer on the corner of Main Street Loop and the Kenai Spur Highway. It was the realization of Davis’ dream to have his own pit someday, and the continuation of family history.

Most of Davis’ family are cooks, and his father used to barbecue for the Texas Cattle Association.

“He was the kingpin of cooking. Man, he was the best,” Davis said.

He made all manner of barbecue, smoked ham and “the best sausages you’d ever eat,” Davis said. The sausages were hand-tied in intestine casings and hung in the smokehouse. Davis’ father grew his own vegetables and raised his own livestock, sometimes enlisting Davis’ unwitting help.

“He gave me some little pigs to raise. The next thing you know he’s putting then on the pit. I’m thinking those were my pets,” Davis said. “He was a character. Man, he was a good cook.”

Davis learned to barbecue from his dad starting when he was 9 years old. He’s been perfecting the craft in his 51 years since.

“I do a lot of things, but cooking is my best thing. I do it the same way my dad did,” he said. “I can make anything tender.”

Davis’ mother owned the Coffee Cup restaurant in Anchorage. When she was diagnosed with cancer, Davis moved to Alaska to help out. About four years ago, Helen brought their grandkids to Kenai in search of better schools and a smaller community. Davis went back and forth until his mother died, then he used the money from her estate to start the Pit.

“It’s been a dream of mine to get my own pit,” he said.

But not just any pit. Davis designed his own grill and had it fabricated at Kenai Welding. He’s had to modify his technique somewhat to fit Alaska. He closes down when it’s below zero because it takes too long for the meat to cook. And he isn’t able to import a mesquite tree, so he has to go with regular charcoal. But no matter how efficient it may be, there’s one change he won’t make.

“Gas is no good. That’s not barbecue,” he said.

Ribs are the standard on the menu, and Davis shows up between 6:30 and 7 a.m. to start cooking them. As with any serious barbecuer, he’s tight-lipped about details. Ask him how he cooks or what’s in his spice rub and all you get is a look, then a laugh.

Davis did say he uses a dry rub with Cajun spices on his ribs, and uses a marinade spray while cooking to keep the meat moist. Even if he wanted to give up his recipe, he said he wouldn’t be able to write it down because he doesn’t know what the exact measurements are.

“People say, ‘How much do you put in there?’ I say, ‘I don’t know. I just put it on there and it’s the right amount,’” Davis said.

The other key to the process is time.

“You have to take a lot of time to make anything real good,” he said. “The flipping and turning of the meat, keeping the right heat on it. I don’t (have a set time) when it’s done. I just look at it and try it and I know.”

The Pit also serves coleslaw and potato salad, and occasionally has specials. Davis barbecues brisket on Tuesdays and Fridays, and uses any leftovers to make barbecue sandwiches on Wednesdays and Saturdays. But you won’t find leftovers more than a day after they were made, Davis said. If food isn’t eaten the day it’s made or the next, it’s tossed.

“I never take food to the third day. I’ve seen people try to revive it and try to make money that way, but you can’t make money if you run people off,” Davis said.
More than anything, he wants to build a reputation for having a clean, consistent operation, with good food served in a comfortable atmosphere.

“I want people to enjoy the food and say this is a nice place to go eat,” Davis said.

There’s no seating in the small restaurant building, just the food preparation area, a bathroom, an office table and the service counter. But there’s plenty of parking space outside for people to sit in their vehicles and eat. The pit itself is behind the building, encased in a cement enclosure that a friend helped make.

The Davises got quite a bit of help in starting the Pit, from donated labor on the pit and the building to signs for the parking lot and along the front railing.

“It’s a blessing. Everything kind of fell in place after I started,” Davis said.

The owner of the lot was reluctant to let Davis rent the spot, since he was skeptical a year-round barbecue stand would make it in Kenai, Davis said. But Davis wouldn’t even consider another spot.

“I saw this and it was just like, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ There’s no other spot in town that I’d want but this,” Davis said.

Business was good this summer, with word of mouth bringing in a steady stream of new customers. Helen’s been doing the bookkeeping and business management, sometimes staying up almost all night working, Davis said.

Business is slower this winter, but they’re still getting by, he said.

“It’s always a struggle when you’re first starting a business. It’s slow now, but we’re making ends meet. And it’s not as bad as we thought,” Davis said.

The Pit also does catering. They provided food for a ConocoPhillips event, Davis said, and really had a chance to shine this summer cooking for a community picnic Mark Begich put on while he was campaigning for Ted Stevens’ Senate seat.

“They expected 40 or 50, but over 300 showed up and I fed everybody,” Davis said.

Begich talked to Davis later about the food.

“He said, ‘That was amazing. I thought we would run out of food,’” Davis said. “But that’s what I do.”

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