New meaning to hands-on barbecue
Grilling Company owner chops a cord of wood a week to fuel his passion.
Keith Hall keeps a chainsaw in the back of his truck.
Hall never knows when he’ll have an hour or two to head to a retired orchard near Belmont, pop in his earbuds and chop some apple wood.
The wood helps him fuel his barbecue business, The Grilling Company, which uses a cord of wood a week. That’s 4 by 4 by 8 feet of wood — and he chops most of it himself.
“I don’t mind doing it; it’s a good way to vent,” Hall said. “To me, there’s something about that. You cut the wood, you split the wood, burn the wood — all the way to slicing the brisket and putting it out to eat.
“There’s something to be said about that.”
Hall was working in construction when he dropped everything in spring 2012 to live his passion and be his own boss. He went all-in on his new career, which had been a hobby.
He started with catering and let his barbecue speak for itself. In August, he opened a takeout counter at 6231 West River Drive in Belmont. Eventually, he hopes to open a restaurant with seating.
He’s in no rush — he wants to build up his company step-by-step.
“When you give yourself very little margin for error and not a lot of money, you have to think before you do,” he said. “Some companies go out and get a lot of investors to put a lot of money into it. That’s OK, but if you’re not super-conscientious about what you’re doing, you can throw a lot of money at things and waste it.”
Hall has been careful not to run out of food — a problem many local barbecue places have had when opening. Hall attributes it to his location from the city, the careful scaling up of business — and the massive capacity of his smokers.
Recently, he added a trailer capable of smoking 1,200 to 1,400 pounds of meat a day; his original smoker is capable of up to 450 pounds a week. One day last week, he smoked 16 briskets, 18 pork butts, 30-some racks of ribs and several chickens.
“I don’t run out of stuff because I don’t want to,” Hall said, adding it’s a balancing act between takeout, catering and keeping the food hot.
“Sometimes it burns us, and we have too much at the end of the day.”
West Michigan’s culture has made it hard for consumers to understand running out of a product before close, Hall said. He wants to avoid such a situation as the region’s barbecue market continues to grow.
“Until recently, we didn’t have any barbecue restaurants,” Hall said, attributing the growth to the growing craft-centric culture and televised shows centered on barbecue.
“We’re already getting some acknowledgement in the barbecue world because we’re growing at such a fast rate — because we didn’t have anything.”
Hall made a comparison to the explosion of coffee shops over the past several decades. He also compared barbecue’s growth to the country’s craft beer growth, which also has caused an underground collection of hobbyists to stray from their former careers into entrepreneurship.
“People decide there’s a need, decide they can do it and push their chips in,” Hall said.
And just like each brewer adds his or her own flair to the beer through the way they brew, Hall said pitmasters each have their own style that differentiates the end product.
“Everyone does brisket; it’s your style that makes it taste totally different from someone else’s,” he said. “Everyone has their own way to do it, and everyone has their own story of how they got into it.”
Like many others, Hall started barbecuing in his backyard. Then he decided to increase the difficulty by trying harder recipes. Then came smoking.
“I didn’t do ribs for a while and tried brisket because not a ton of people were doing brisket,” he said. “I broke every technical barbecue rule — I didn’t even know there were rules.”
Then he started burning old wood because charcoal became expensive. It turned out the wood was better for adding flavor. It’s quicker than charcoal too because it doesn’t take so long to heat up.
“It tastes better, smells better,” he said. “I’m used to it now.”
At one point he considered opening a butcher shop, but the overhead was prohibitive. So he built a smoker, found an incubator kitchen and picked up the required permits.
“I wanted to give 110 percent and make sure it all works. Everything is a gamble,” said Hall, whose wife is a teacher.
“You have to go in and focus. If you believe in it and know what you’re doing, put your goals on a board and shoot for it, there’s nothing holding you back from success.”