Hundreds of miles south of the frozen Lake Erie Shore, near Plains, Ga., is the community where Nate Rockwell, co-founder and owner of Briquettes Smokehouse, got his introduction to real barbecue at the age of 8.
“Barbecue was a community thing in the South,” Rockwell says as he takes a break with a cup of coffee in the pub area of his restaurant. “It was not so much a cooking style as a way of life and an event. Down South, when they had a barbecue, everyone was invited. You were all on the same plane at the barbecue and showed respect for each other. It was a time to shake off whatever title you had.”
Briquettes, started on a $14,000 shoestring by Rockwell and his partner John Sender seven years ago, increasingly resembles that “down South” experience with each incarnation of the restaurant and pub. The barbecue is genuine Southern, and the cold January air around the three-story restaurant is tinged with the delicious smoke of cherry, hickory and oak logs courting the beef, chicken, turkey and pork.
The galvanizing power of food and beverage clearly have created on the south shore of Lake Erie the same kind of community that Rockwell knew one month every summer in America’s Deep South.
In one corner of the pub, an elderly couple enjoys a luncheon date while two millennials discuss a business deal several tables away. Various ethnic groups are represented in both the staff and the clientele.
Briquettes recently relocated from its Bridge Street location, in the former Hulbert’s building, to this brick, riverfront warehouse. It is the restaurant’s third location, and while Rockwell hopes it will be its final one, he is not ignore opportunity for the sake of ease, efficiency or sentimentality.
He says the challenges of the Hulbert’s building quickly became evident after opening there in April 2013. The coolers are on the second floor of the building while the kitchen is on the first. That meant that employees were constantly lugging large, heavy chunks of meat and other provisions down the stairs.
“It was a big risk for the kitchen staff,” he says.
The Morton Drive building offered Senger and Rockwell the opportunity to do something with a restaurant they’d previously not had: Plan it from the ground up.
The opportunity first came when Rockwell got involved in planning the expansion of a Geneva Mexican restaurant into the building. The owners called upon Rockwell and his years of experience in the industry to do the renovation drawings for the former warehouse. When the entrepreneur decided to invest in her existing location rather than branch out, Rockwell got interested in the space for Briquettes.
Rockwell says the fact that he could tailor the building to suit the needs of his business played a big role in the decision to relocate Briquettes. The river-side patio is another big plus, as is the banquet room. Briquettes does a lot of catering, and having a banquet facility is expected to reduce the number of off-site gigs while providing clients with a beautifully-sited option.
“The first floor had an earthen floor and bare brick walls,” Rockwell says. “There was no plumbing or electricity. On the second floor, it was the same thing, except the restroom had been framed in.”
The third floor had been converted to office space for Tim McCarty, the Business of Good and the NEO Fund. While some office space is being retained on that floor, the bulk of the area provides a banquet area with seating for 60 guests.
The relocated restaurant opened in December and was an immediate hit, despite the move taking two months rather than the one Rockwell had planned. It was a costly delay for the owners, who continued to pay their managers’ salaries while waiting for the completion of the work.
Briquettes re-opened Dec. 12, 2015, and response has been phenomenal. In order to re-stock and recover from the heavier volume of business, Rockwell was forced to curtail their operation from six days to five, Tuesday through Saturday.
Half of his management staff works on Sunday and the other half on Monday to prepare the restaurant and stock for another very busy five days.
“It’s been extremely busy,” Rockwell says of the restaurant’s first four weeks on the riverfront.
Rockwell and Sender opened Briquettes on June 27, 2009, in what was the Rennick Meat Market and, immediately prior to their business, Miss Billie’s Barbecue. Rockwell and Senger had met while working at Martini’s in Ashtabula. It was one of a long string of restaurants, both private and corporate, that Rockwell had worked at since high school. An Erie, Pa., native, Rockwell was introduced to Ashtabula County by an opportunity to help turn around the food operation at Unionville Tavern. While Rockwell was successful in modernizing the menu and getting a handle on expenses, the losses continued to mount and the owner decided to close the operation.
“I got tired of finding myself on the unemployment line,” he said. “I’d had two restaurants close from under me in four years because of working for owners who didn’t have the love or commitment necessary. I wanted to provide my family with some security, but that came with a tremendous amount of risk. I took a tremendous hit in salary, but like they say, ‘No time was the best time.’”
Rockwell wrote a business plan for a restaurant based upon his childhood experiences at his paternal grandparent’s Koinonia community.
“The idea was to keep it simple and traditional,” he says. “Real barbecue was something that is kind of missing from the northern states.”
About that time, Miss Billie’s closed and the WITO Fund in Cleveland was looking to help an entrepreneur in Ashtabula because of a conditional capital infusion from this area. The micro-enterprise injection was for up to $15,000, but the first business plan Rockwell came up with required $50,000. The person who reviewed the plan at WITO told Rockwell to “bring it back and show me how you can do it for $20,000.”
By the time the entrepreneurs got their funding, the amount had been whittled down to $14,000. By doing virtually all the work themselves, buying used equipment and cutting a deal with the landlord for $10,000 in matching improvements, they were able to open with that $14,000, and their personal funds, in June 2009.
The menu was simple and not drastically different from the cornerstone options that Briquettes still serves: pulled pork, chopped chicken, beef brisket and several Southern sides.
Looking back on those early months, Rockwell recalls long hours at the restaurant interrupted by long hours on his days off, as well as sleepless nights. They had only a basic smoker and Rockwell, who lives on Joseph Avenue, had to get up a couple of times during the night, walk down to the restaurant and maintain the smoker. He did that for about seven months before they could afford a larger, more professional smoker.
He and Senger opened their shop with just one employee. When things started to get busy, Rockwell called upon his mother to work.
Two weeks after opening the new restaurant, his wife, Elisabeth, gave birth to their second child. The couple had met while working together at the Unionville Tavern. They embraced a lifestyle of frugality, partially born of necessity since they worked in the restaurant business. When Rockwell wrote his business plan, he budgeted a salary of only $250 a week for each owner.
“My wife and I have always been people who lived below our means,” he says.
He and Elisabeth stretched their finances by purchasing a fixer-upper on Joseph Avenue and going without health insurance. They heat their house with firewood that Rockwell cuts off a wooded parcel that his family owns in Pennsylvania. Elisabeth took care of the books in the first couple of years of the restaurant, and she continues to work in the marketing and graphic design aspects.
And Nate continues to cut firewood for his house, his mother’s and the two smokers. Nate says they use about a cord of smoker wood annually. Charcoal actually provides most of the heat for the smoker; the wood is there for the smoky flavor. But because getting the right kind of wood is so essential to providing a consistent product, Nate insists upon selecting, cutting and hauling it himself. His experiments with outsourcing that aspect of the restaurant ended in disaster when the supplier slipped some pine in to the mix.
“There is nothing worse than going out and opening the door to the cookers and getting a big whiff of pine. You got to throw (the meat) out,” he says. “I won’t even use any (wood) that’s been dragged through the mud, and I prefer the wood from the middle of the log. I can get a much higher quality product if I cut it myself.”
Rockwell says he relishes those opportunities to go into the forest early in the morning and cut and haul wood all day. When he gets tired, he builds a campfire, gets his guitar out of the truck and strums and sings under the stars. Occasionally, an owl or other wildlife drops in on his performance.
The opportunities to cut wood and chill out by singing have been rare since taking on the expansion and move. If Rockwell gets any free time, he spends it with his growing family, three children and a fourth on the way. He also tinkers with hobby orchards at his home and his mother’s land in Pennsylvania. Rockwell envisions one day having a value-added orchard specializing in commercial fillings and sauces.
Speaking of sauces, Rockwell says the most common question he hears from guests is “Where is the barbecue sauce?”
“When we opened people thought that barbecue was pork and (slow cookers),” he says.
Briquettes’ bar was the first in Ashtabula to offer craft beers on tap, but educating the public is a slow process. “I wish I had a dollar for every person who has asked for a Miller Lite,” he says.
Rockwell says his goal is to “stay ahead of the curve,” whether that is in food and drink trends or the business of restaurant management. He strives to provide a professional work environment for his employees and is constantly looking at ways to improve the benefits package. He says that at this time Briquettes follows the national model of not providing health insurance for the employees, but he hopes to eventually break fund a benefits package that will create a new model for the industry.
Likewise, Rockwell and Senger are community minded in volunteering with the Lift Bridge Community Association, NEO Fund and assisting novice entrepreneurs get their start. He is manager/education specialist for the fund and serves on the LBCA board. He and John also own the Bascule Bridge Grill and invest in Bridge Street real estate.
“We are a for-profit business, but we are also community,” he says. “I want to make sure what we’re doing benefits the community as whole.”
Rockwell’s training has been “the school of hard knocks.” Fascinated by cooking since he was a toddler who got up in the middle of the night and tried frying eggs in his mother’s kitchen, Rockwell learned the business by experience rather than a college classroom.
“I have always attached myself at the hip with anyone I can learn from,” he says, summing up his approach to education.
At 37, Rockwell still has many years of work and innovation ahead of him, but for the time being, he wants to focus on making the most of Briquette’s new location.
“We can’t grow any more, at least not at this location,” he says.
While he can’t rule out opening more smokehouses, Rockwell says if that happens, he hopes it is under the ownership of one of his managers. Then again, with the popularity and flexibility of food trucks, Rockwell says that his next smokehouse may have four wheels and an engine.
No matter where he smokes and serves his barbecue, Rockwell is not going to drastically alter his recipes – they are essentially unchanged from that first day he and Senger opened. And that means Rockwell will be heading to the heading the woods in search of downed cherry, oak and hickory trees for the foreseeable future.
“It sounds like a lot of work, but I’ll be honest, I absolutely love it,” he says.