Blue Willy's Barbecue's Will Banks: "I Had a Life in the Corporate World I Couldn't Take Anymore"
In South Florida, a few things indicate summer has officially come: torrential daily downpours (almost check), sweat within minutes of walking out the door (also check), and Memorial Day (check).
Though it shouldn't make a difference down here -- our mild weather suits outdoor cooking year-round -- when summer hits, barbecue season starts heating up.
When it comes to slowly smoked meats, few South Floridians know more than Will Banks of Blue Willy's Barbecue.
As part one of our two-part Q&A, we spoke to the Texas native about growing up in a barbecue family and taking the jump from the corporate world to smoking.
Clean Plate Charlie: You modeled the restaurant off the original barbecue joints and butcher shops in Texas. How did you become so interested in authentic barbecue?
Banks: My grandfather owned a barbecue shop in Texas. In the 1950s/60s, the old butcher shops started turning into barbecue restaurants, because they heard other ones were doing it and making money. A lot of these people were in the sausage business back then. In a little town called Elgin, Texas, they started cooking and they found that good cooked food started making more money for them.
What was it like working in your grandfather's barbecue shop?
At 9 years old, I started hanging out with my grandfather. I learned how to barbecue there. When I was 15, he was done; he sold the restaurant, and we moved to New York, but my grandfather still barbecued. I moved to South Florida years ago and have been barbecuing the whole time. I have all sorts of pits I built. I've been barbecuing for friends and neighbors my whole life.
How has barbecue changed since then?
I cook barbecue the same way they did in the '50s, but it's mostly chains now; it got commercialized. I think last year it was one of the hottest foods in the country. I think the Food Network did it, caused the resurgence. The barbecue thing is all over TV now. Something started it, and they pushed it once they realized people were really into watching it.
You've said before that you've been barbecuing your whole life. What made you decide to jump into the barbecue business?
I had a life in the corporate world that I couldn't take anymore. All I did was travel. Barbecue was something I knew how to do; the food-truck thing was never the original intent. I was looking for restaurants, but I very quickly needed to reinvent myself. I've been cooking for friends and neighbors, because I worked for my grandfather as a kid. The economy was crashing at the time, around 2006. So I went to the West Coast of the country to check out the food-truck scene. My brother took me from San Diego to Washington to see about the business, and it was really healthy. I came back and was like, "OK, forget the restaurant." That was the best decision I ever made. Restaurants were closing every day; I probably wouldn't have made it. The plan was to build a client base for two or three years, and I did.
Why do you think food trucks were so popular at the time?
I think because the economy was bad, food trucks offered a cheaper alternative to eat better food. As the economy improves, people are now wanting to eat at nice restaurants again. Now, too many have gone at the same time; there's not enough room for everyone. Some are a bit redundant. There were only a couple of barbecue trucks. When I stopped being mobile, I noticed an overabundance of similar trucks. The ones in their own little niche are still doing well.
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