Making a go of it in the barbecue world is difficult enough. But when the economy is working against you, it’s just about impossible.
I know two people who have beaten those odds. Phil and Dianna Pipkin run Phil’s Dream Pit, on Eastern Star Road outside Kingsport. They both had good corporate jobs. They had security. They had solid retirement plans. But they turned their backs on all that.
Phil and Dianna cashed in their 401k accounts, abandoned corporate America, and took a huge risk. Just as they were planning the opening of their new barbecue restaurant, the Great Recession hit. Although they were discouraged at times, the Pipkins never quit, and they never stopped pursuing that dream.
It took two years, but Phil and Dianna danced on the porch when they met expenses and when they made their first $400.
Barbecue comes natural to Phil. He has family roots in one of America’s cradles of barbecue, West Tennessee. His father James grew up about 60 miles from Memphis, in Tennessee’s whole hog country.
In East Tennessee, where James served as a Washington County extension agent for 30 years, he learned to barbecue chickens. He would buy about 500 of them in Elizabethton, cut them in half, and take them down to Bowmantown, where he would cook them over a charcoal pit for community organizations like Ruritans and Rotary clubs.
In his corporate life, Phil spent time in Memphis, where he learned about dry rub ribs at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, an urban barbecue establishment run by the son of Greek immigrants. He filed the knowledge away, hoping that someday, he would be a pitmaster, too.
Today, dry rub ribs are a menu mainstay at Phil’s Dream Pit, as are sweet ribs, and a new version, sweet Thai chili.
Phil picked up sauce ideas on his travels, too. There’s a mountain-style sweet sauce on his tables, a South Carolina-influenced mustard sauce, and an Eastern North Carolina-inflected vinegar sauce. “I have everything but an Alabama white sauce,” Phil tells me.
On a typical night, Phil barbecues about 30 Boston butts, and sometimes even 40. He doesn’t season the meat, instead relying on charcoal and wood for flavoring. The pork cooks for about 12 to 14 hours.
“People comment on how fast they’re served,” Phil says. It’s the irony of barbecue: long in the cooking, quick in the serving.
Phil adds that nothing is fried at his restaurant, and all the side dishes are homemade except for potato chips. Old-fashioned potato salad made with mustard and mayonnaise, coleslaw, baked beans with smoked pork, and hash brown casserole come fresh out of the kitchen, as do banana pudding and blueberry cobbler.
One of the restaurant’s most popular items is the “pork wing,” cut from the shank of the ham.
While Phil stresses that his “quest for the perfect barbecue” is a never-ending process of continuous improvement, when I ask him about the status of his dream, he says the business has “surpassed expectations.”
An element of the Phil’s Dream Pit logo is a flying pig. When we use the phrase “when pigs fly,” we usually mean something that is virtually impossible. It’s a fitting symbol for this little barbecue joint situated at a country crossroads. It started at the worst possible time. And it recently celebrated 11 years in business.
“I hadn’t really thought about the logo that way,” Phil tells me.
Just maybe the impossible has become commonplace for this hard-working couple.
Phil’s Dream Pit
534 Eastern Star Road
Interstate 26, Exit 10
Fred Sauceman is the author of the book “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”