Just about everyone enjoys a plateful of barbecue pork, ribs or chicken. And yet there’s a subset of us who absolutely love barbecue — we could eat it seven days a week.
The allure often begins with the rich aroma of Q wafting onto the street, through the car window and into our sniffers. We glance to the side of the road and witness a smoky plume rising from the smokestacks of a large black cooker. Our mouths water as we succumb to the urge and turn into the parking area to place an order.
It’s a scene played out constantly whenever a quality roadside barbecue is in the vicinity. Such is the case with Phyllis Rayner, better known as the “Bar-B-Q Queen.” For the past nine years she’s toiled at her location in front of Baker’s Roofing at 1267 N. Highland Ave., Clearwater.
Rayner trailers the cooker to the site, backs it into a spot paralleling the busy roadway, erects a sales tent and is ready for business by 11 a.m. By the 8 p.m. closing time, she’s sold huge quantities of ribs, chicken, pork, collard greens, baked beans, potato salad, cakes, pies, peach cobblers and soft drinks.
“It was custom-made by my dad,” Rayner said as I admired the massive 16-foot smoker pit with a 2,500-gallon tank. The stainless steel contraption is by no means primitive, instead sporting a round firebox, main chamber, air intakes, warming box, three smokestacks, pullout trays, a large work station, special handles, thermometer, trailer tongue with a spare tire and more. A super-duper trailer-cooker such as this can cost upwards of $15,000 or more.
The roadside barbecue business is a family tradition, with Rayner’s father learning the trade in North Carolina and her mother in Georgia. In fact, her mother owned a roadside cooker in Safety Harbor for 30 years.
Another Clearwater staple for the past two years is a roadside operator named John Egnasher. His smoker pit is located next to the Circle A Food Store at the intersection of Sunset Point Road and Douglas Avenue. A recent health issue has restricted Egnasher’s working hours, but he still has a faithful following of customers when the cooker is fired up.
“He makes the best pork you’ll ever taste,” said one frequent customer. “I work nearby and everyone in the shop rushes over here at lunchtime to get a plate of pork.”
Not all roadside barbecue operations appear to be clean and spiffy, however. I stopped briefly at the sight of a roadside smoker pit and immediately drove away after noticing that a large septic tank truck is kept in a nearby enclosure. The best bet is to keep a watchful eye out for cleanliness, note the portion sizes and, of course, judge the quality of taste. Serving spoons should be cleaned after each use and food trays covered to fend off flies and dust. The presence of a line of waiting customers is always a good indicator.
Roadside barbecue stands often grow into brick-and-mortar operations as word of mouth spreads about their popularity. Rayner plans to move into the adjoining Baker’s Roofing building and name the business Tarheel Grill as a tribute to her father.
Eli Crawford, who died last year, moved Eli’s Bar B Que roadside stand into a small shack at 360 Skinner Blvd., in Dunedin, that’s still rated as one of Tampa Bay’s favorite eateries.
Rayner, like Eli’s, operates only on Fridays and Saturdays.
“It’s all we need,” she said. “Besides, it takes lots of prep time and planning the rest of the week to make sure that what we serve is the best possible.”
We all see the roadside barbecue stands here and there throughout Clearwater and nearby communities. Some come, so go, but the best operators stick around and represent the essence of small-business tradition and the entrepreneurial spirit. And for those of us always hungry for some good Q, that’s just the way we like it.