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Nov. 22, 2007

For Kisner, Restaurant Business Is Labor Of Love

By Alexe van Beuren

    Randy Kisner is a deliberate man. This becomes very clear as he leans over the counter at Smokey Bottom BBQ (on Wise Street, just beyond Southern Kitchen towards the bypass) and tells me the details of running the take-out restaurant he opened ten short months ago with his son Jay.

    “I smoke with pecan,” he tells me. “I like it. It’s a little milder than hickory.”

    “Do you make your own coleslaw?” I ask, and he nods.

    “Made ten pounds this morning,” Randy says. He goes on to tell me that he chops full heads of cabbage with a knife, because he prefers the taste to the precut and bagged kind.

    When it comes to cooking methods, Randy proves himself to be a purist: he orders whole shoulders of the pig instead of Boston butts because “it’s sweeter when you smoke with the skin on,” and every item on his menu is fresh because he refuses to keep precooked meat in the freezer. “If I don’t sell it, I throw it out.”

    Randy bought only commercial-grade equipment for his kitchen, and those pigs in the foyer? He painted them himself. Smokey Bottom BBQ is a labor of love for Randy Kisner, and it shows.

    Originally from Lafayette County, Randy Kisner comes to the barbecuing business honestly: one grandfather raised hogs and the other was the head cook at Ole Miss’s athletes dorm.

    “They were just football players to me,” he says. “And I find out later that I ate with Archie Manning and Gentle Ben Williams.”

    When Randy began working at Bryant Foods in West Point, he learned how to cut meat and became interested in smoking.

    “I fell in love with smoking. It’s a tradition that goes way back,” Randy says, his eyes alight. “I saw these old men with their shacks and a grill out back were making sort of a living at it. I wanted to do it, and so I began practicing.”

    For Jay’s first birthday, Randy cooked ribs –  and for the first time, they came out right. “It was so satisfying to have someone say, ‘this is good,” Randy recalls. He tells me that he might have gone to culinary school and spent his teenage years working in restaurants, but “as a single parent who has to work,” he says, and shrugs. Randy has raised his son since Jay was six (Jay is now twenty-one with a son of his own).

    Randy began to seriously pursue his dream of running his own BBQ place after his parents died relatively young. “I was working for somebody else and barely making it,” Randy says, and grins. “I thought– why not work for myself and barely make it?”

    With seed money from the late Brownie Crawford, Randy and Jay opened Smoky Bottom BBQ on January 7, 2007. It’s been a leap of faith for the Kisners.

    “Jay said, ‘who’s going to be a partner?’ and I said, ‘it’ll be me, you, and the Good Lord.’”

    They began small: a simple menu of pulled pork and BBQ sandwiches and ribs. In true Water Valley style, the line the first day went out the door and the kitchen was overwhelmed; ten months later, things have calmed down– and evolved.

    Randy has added beef brisket to the menu, and “I’m working on a smoked boneless chicken sandwich,” he admits.

    “How much work does a sandwich need?” I ask.

    Randy grins. “I’m skittish,” he says. “I like to think on things before I add them.”

    He writes the daily menu on a white board. It changes based on what he has (since he refuses to freeze food, when he runs out– he runs out), and on Friday nights, Randy sleeps in a trailer adjacent to the restaurant so he can grill his ribs and smoke his shoulders all night long.

    “For the first six months, I didn’t sleep,” he says. “It’s still hard to sleep with meat on the fire.”

    Between running the restaurant (open Monday-Saturday from 10:30 to 6:30) and doing catering jobs for as many as two hundred people, the Kisners are keeping busy. “People have been real nice,” Randy says. “Sometimes we have to turn a job down, and that’s kind of scary – but there’s just two of us.”

    So what does Randy hope will happen for Smokey Bottom BBQ? Mostly, that it will be a way to make a living– for him and his son.

    “I started this business for Jay,” Randy says. “I’d love to be out there picking on the fire and watch him taking care of business.”

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