In the restaurant business, change is a fickle mistress who is particularly adept at ensnaring any unwary entrepreneur. The lady dangles tales of prosperity and popularity that could be the proprietor’s own if only this or that change is made to personnel, menu, facility, or advertising. Sometimes, the change made is good for business.
Other times, well…
The restaurant in question is Smokehouse BBQ Company, now owned by the husband and wife team of Levi and Jessie Eastridge. The couple teamed up with former owner Michael Miles back in September 2016. This past January, after the Eastridges had learned all aspects of owning and running one of the Tri-Cities premier barbecue joints, the Smokehouse BBQ Company was theirs.
The transfer of ownership was handled in such a professional manner that many patrons of Smokehouse BBQ Company were unaware of the change. My first clue occurred at the end of a recent lunch stop my dining partner and I made after a shopping trip to Elizabethton.
The appearance of a third “Secret” barbecue sauce alongside Smokehouse BBQ’s veteran sauces “Sweet” and “Mad Dog” told me something was different.
With the front dining room full, Jessica seated my dining partner and me at a booth in the back, with a panoramic view of the shade-dappled Tweetsie Trail to keep us company. The menus Jessie handed us were the same as we’d seen on our last visit. The familiar faces of the wait staff were still there, too.
As we were considering what to order, I had a chance to sample Smokehouse BBQ’s new Secret barbecue sauce.
A long-awaited (for me) change, the sauce is Carolina-style, using vinegar as the foundation for a complex blend of spices and flavor generators that can give all your taste buds a good workout. There is no molasses or brown sugar used here. Its noticeable sweet note is provided by white sugar, while the heat source is of the cayenne variety, leaving some nice residual warmth at the back of the throat post-swallow.
Sharpness is supplied by yellow mustard; though the sauce has a pleasant umber color, the quantity of mustard used is so small that you can’t call this a mustard-based sauce, I am still trying to wheedle out the source of the sauce’s citrus note, but Mr. and Mrs. Eastridge aren’t saying.
To find out how the Secret sauce worked with food, I ordered a smoked chicken quesadilla ($7.50) with a house salad on the side. My dining partner chose an 8-ounce cheeseburger ($8) and a side order of “real” French fries. The kitchen at Smokehouse BBQ Company was still working with its usual efficiency; Jessie had our made-to-order meals in front of us inside 15 minutes.
I put a gentle squirt of Secret sauce on my plate. Dipping a corner of my smoked chicken quesadilla into the rust-colored puddle, I took a tentative bite off that corner and rolled it around on my taste buds before chomping down.
Combined with the smoky note of the chicken and the nutty bouquet of the cheddar-Monterey Jack cheeses, the Secret sauce does a good if workmanlike job. The vinegar’s sour tang squares up nicely to the chicken’s smoke and pungent diced onions and peppers. The sauce’s cayenne heat shows up right when it is needed, and the citrus note adds a curiously tropical finish.
Secret sauce also makes a good, tangy salad dressing. My dining partner tried some on her cheeseburger, finding the sauce’s effect on grilled beef to be okay though not as big a deal as when she squeezed some on her French fries.
On our way out, we stopped to chat with the masculine half of Smokehouse BBQ Company’s new proprietorship, Levi Eastridge. Wiping his hands on his apron and smiling broadly, Eastridge said that Smokehouse BBQ Company would remain pretty much as it had in the past.
The popular “Murder Mystery Caravan” dinner theaters would still be an ongoing event, as would music at the creek-side pavilion. Service to hungry travelers on the Tweetsie Trail would continue as well.
Some minor changes, (the new Secret sauce, for one) had already been made. A redesign and “tightening up” of the menu was being worked on. Sadly, the Dreamsicle cake is off the menu, though Butterfinger cake and my favorite, the peanut butter pie is still there.
The biggest change in Smokehouse BBQ Company’s future is Eastridge’s decision to add hickory wood to the company’s applewood and cherry smoke sources.
His reason was to find more local sources of wood for smoking, and add a seasonal touch to his smoke, using his two fruit woods in spring and summer, reserving hickory for the autumn and winter.
For barbecue aficionados, changing a barbecue pit’s smoke source is like editing the Ten Commandments for content. It will be interesting to see if this fundamental change Levi Eastridge has wrought leads to Reformation or to Heresy. Meanwhile, though I am still wary of change, Smokehouse BBQ Company still has my business.
Smokehouse BBQ Company
1941 Milligan Highway
Tue – Sat 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Available on Facebook and at
Credit cards accepted