- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - The savory, smoky aroma of beef, poultry and pork slow-roasting over a bed of glowing wood coals is more than enough to coax a sticky-fingered, sauce-from-ear-to-ear grin from any meat lover.

But although logic dictates barbecue restaurants would not only proliferate but prosper in the heart of livestock country, the recent closure of two locally owned and operated smokehouses within a few days last month, along with a checkered history for other similar ventures, prompts this question: How much of a fall-off-the-bone-pork-ribs town is Rapid City?

“It’s a tough racket,” said former restaurateur Brian Trail, who, along with his wife, Kristina, operated Black Hills Barbeque until shuttering their West Main Street restaurant at the end of January.

“There’s a handful of people in Rapid City that love their barbecue,” Trail said, “but there aren’t enough of them.”

Not far away at 2101 Mount Rushmore Road, Papa T’s BBQ House, boasting of its sweet Kansas City-style barbecue, opened in late September but also closed in January, the Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/1Umce2Q ) reported.

The marquee in front of Papa T’s on Monday still advertised “Pulled Pork Sandwich and Fries only $8.99” to an empty parking lot. Attempts to reach Papa T’s owner Charles Taylor for comment for this story were unsuccessful.

The Trails opened Black Hills Barbeque in May 2014 at 200 E. Main St., then with their business growing, moved to a larger location at 2060 West Main St. in March of last year.

Black Hills Barbeque developed a loyal following for its Texas-style pork ribs and beef brisket, but Trail said local, independent restaurateurs face an uphill battle against regional and national chains.

“Rapid City doesn’t particularly like its mom-and-pop restaurants,” Trail said. “We think we had the best damn barbecue in town. Other people said it too.”

In Rapid City, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, a Dallas, Texas-based chain dating back to 1941, operates on Haines Avenue, and Famous Dave’s, another Southern-style chain started in 1994 in Hayward, Wis., is in the Rushmore Crossing Shopping Center complex.

The culinary battle for finite consumer cash is fierce, said Shawn Lyons, of Pierre, executive director of the South Dakota Retailers Association. He added that independent operators face the added challenge of finding ways to separate themselves from chains.

The Trails cited a need to spend more time with their five children, including their youngest son, who suffers from a medical condition requiring treatment in Colorado.

“So it has come to an end. . We will close this chapter and begin a new one,” said a post on Black Hills Barbeque’s Facebook page on January 30, the last day in business.

Trail said he was putting in 100 hours a week at the restaurant. Since closing the restaurant he has resumed his former career as a truck driver.

“It was better to close and do something else and have more time with our children,” Trail said.

Black Hills Barbeque and Papa T’s BBQ House are the latest in a string of locally owned barbecue restaurants that have had their coals go cold in the last several years.

Other businesses have literally gone up in smoke. Justin Rhodes opened JR’s Rhodehouse Barbecue Pit in Piedmont in 2013. A fire of still-undetermined origin destroyed the building in June of 2014.

After the fire, Rhodes regrouped and sold barbecue from the VFW building in downtown Rapid City for a time, but now caters barbecue out of his Piedmont home.

In spite of the lack of a sit-down restaurant, Rhodes’ business was named No. 22 on a list of the best barbecue places in America in a book by food and travel author Johnny Fugitt, who visited 365 restaurants over the course of a year.

“If I didn’t have a full-time job, and if there wasn’t that arson fire, JR’s Rhodehouse would be rocking and rolling right now,” said Rhodes, a food inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Rhodes said barbecue is simple, but maintaining a level of quality in all facets of the process will make or break a smokehouse.

“It’s meat, wood and fire. It’s not that hard,” he said. “You have to be consistent, or you won’t get that repeat customer. You have to wow people every time they come through that door.”

Rhodes said it took 20 years of experience to hone his barbecue skills. A good business plan, keeping overhead to a minimum with a small family-run operation, is also a key.

The Trails, originally from Chicago, did research on the area before taking the plunge on their restaurant. They thought selling beer at their restaurant might help Black Hills Barbeque distinguish itself from Dickey’s, which doesn’t sell alcohol.

They also advertised locally and on social media and were active in supporting community events, such as the Special Olympics, but it wasn’t enough.

“We loved the people that came in the door. We had a good relationship with all of them,” Trail said.

Rhodes will continue to cater out of his home, but he still hopes to open another barbecue joint at some point. He’s confident of the market for good ‘que in Rapid City, in spite of ups-and-downs of other restaurants and the sometimes fickle nature of the local restaurant crowd.

“People are not afraid to pay for good barbecue,” Rhodes said.


Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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