WYANET — A good barbecue can't be rushed, according to Todd Peterson, owner of the Main Street BBQ restaurant in Wyanet.
In fact, the secret of a great barbecue is "low and slow," which is just the motto emblazoned across some of the T-shirts worn by his staff. The heat has to be low, and the cooking has to be slow to get the perfect barbecue.
Peterson, who grew up in Ashland City, Tenn., says he learned from the best of the best when it comes to barbecuing.
"When I was a kid, I would see these old men who were out barbecuing whole hogs and shoulders on the open pit. They would open up that pit, and the meat smelled really good," Peterson said. "These guys were all in their 70s and 80s, and they made it perfectly clear that if I was going to hang out with them, I was going to work. And that's how I learned to barbecue."
Peterson said the men taught him to build the fire out of oak or hickory; let the wood burn down to coals; and then take the coals by the shovelful and sprinkle them below the racks of meat ... so the heat came up nice and low and slow. All night long, he would be shoveling coals under the racks of meat, Peterson remembered. After cooking the meat for 12 to 16 hours, the men would pull the meat off in the morning, wrap it and prepare to sell it during the day and week.
"I learned the craft from the experts of the craft, these old gentleman who had been doing it all their lives, standing out there in their work boots and overalls with wads of tobacco in their mouths, " Peterson said. "This is something that's ingrained in the South."
That same southern style of barbecuing is what has earned Peterson's restaurant the reputation as a first-rate experience. His customers come from throughout Bureau County and the surrounding counties, from as far away as Peoria and the Quad Cities. People know a good barbecue when they taste it, Peterson said.
The literal definition of barbecuing goes back to Cuba and the West Indies, where meat was cooked slowly over an open fire for hours. Nowadays, when people fire up the grill in the backyard and throw some burgers on it, that's grilling, not barbecuing, he said.
But there's also more to barbecuing than just having meat offset with smoke and indirect heat, Peterson said. There's also learning to put additional flavor into the meat through the use of spices. Peterson has 18 different spices which he uses to make a "rub," which is patted onto the meat, forming a crust. He also likes to sprinkle some rub onto each serving plate.
To compliment the meat and rub, Peterson has developed his own Sweet and Sassy Sauce, which he has professionally bottled and sells at his restaurant and through his website. It took him five years of experimenting with different spices and liquids to create the perfect sauce to compliment his meats and rubs, but he's pleased with the final product.
Peterson has entered his original sauce local in national competitions. In a blind judge competition in Texas, his sauce won first place, competing against about 100 sauces. In this year's Man of Texas competition, his sauce took 11th place out 187 sauces. He's also entered his sauce in the Kewanee Hog Festival and taken seconds and thirds. He went to the Henry County Fair a couple years ago and got a first, second, third and fifth.
Opened since Sept. 1, 2007, his restaurant's success is due to two things: Consistency and pride, Peterson said. He and his staff, which includes several family members, work hard every day to make the customers happy. They work hard to make sure the quality of food is just where it should be, that each time a customer comes into the restaurant, the food is just as good as the last time.
"If a customer is unhappy, I want to make sure I've done everything I can to make that customer happy. If I don't, I haven't done my job," Peterson said.
But his restaurant isn't just about good food, Peterson said. Main Street BBQ is also about providing a community place for visiting with neighbors, swapping stories and maybe a little gossip, and even getting to make friends out of strangers.
To promote that community spirit, the restaurant has a long center table which seats 12 people. Like in most any other small town, that center table is often the life of the party with friends and visitors talking about the weather, sharing family news and even occasionally coming close to solving the world problems. He even has one table set up with a checkers game where family and friends can play a friendly game while waiting for their meal. The restaurant seats a total of 46 people with all tables having small wooden peg games made by Peterson's father-in-law.
To increase his customer service, Peterson has recently opened his restaurant for breakfast, as requested by some local folks. Also, the restaurant's catering business is expanding and doing well, with wedding reception, graduation parties, family gatherings and service to numerous area businesses.
Though he does advertise through local media and uses social media like Facebook, Twitter and a website to promote the restaurant, Peterson said the best advertisement is always the word of mouth from satisfied customers.
With more and more people appreciating the "low and slow" approach to barbecuing, Peterson seems to have found a winning recipe at Main Street BBQ.