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VOL. 43 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 8, 2019

Creating great barbecue a team concept at Fat Boy’s

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The pink pig – and the unmistakable aroma of barbecue cooking slowly – beckons customers rolling down Highway 41  (Murfreesboro Road) to Fat Boy’s BBQ. Cook Kevin Preston makes the aroma even more irresistible by tossing an onion and a little water on the smoker.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

Sitting on two plastic milk crates – one red and one blue – beneath a giant pink pig and next to a pile of split hickory and cherry, I chat with Fat Boy about family, love, life’s gambles and triumphs … even about God and brisket.

Well, at 6-0 (“at least I like to think I’m that tall”) and 200 pounds, Tony Roney, 56, is far from the definition of fat. But he admits, with a tongue-in-cheek chuckle, he is the face of Fat Boy’s BBQ at 2733 Murfreesboro Road.

“You lose a lot of weight working with one of these things on,” he says, pulling at the top of his red apron, his uniform the five days a week – Tuesday-Saturday – when he and his two great friends and employees, Rhonda Snider and Kevin Preston, keep the fires burning, pork shoulders and ribs (and fish and chicken, etc.) smoking and barbecue white beans and other sides hot and ready. Clean it all up with a fried cornbread flapjack. Got dessert if you want it.

“We do a good business here,” says Tony, who a decade ago installed the giant, pink pig that presides over a stretch of Murfreesboro Road and sets his barbecue dispensary apart from more subdued signage of businesses along this stretch. After all, how can anyone outdo a giant pink pig high above the pavement?

“I was at the point in life where I said ‘Tony, I’ve got to create me a job,’” he says, smile lifting the corners of his white goatee while talking about the reason for the pig over the road and the smoking pork below.

“But I really want to talk about Rhonda and K.P. and how we are a good team. I love ’em,” he says, rocking on a black milk crate briefly before unharnessed energy springs him back to his feet, better equipped to pace back-and-forth beside the Fat Boy’s BBQ food truck (parked behind the restaurant) that carries his wares to special events.

“Last one we did was the art festival down in Bell Buckle,” he adds. “It was raining so hard, but K.P. (Kevin) kept cooking, and we kept selling.”

K.P. tells me the weather – while he prefers it nice, as is this day I spend in the pink pig’s shadow – never stops him.

“He (he points to his boss) gives me an order, and no matter what the weather, I’m cooking. Rain. Sleet. Snow. Whatever.”

His boss – more like a friend and admirer of the pitmaster’s ability – hands him an order slip that has just been called in; and K.P. grabs a couple chunks of wood and ambles back to the smoker beneath the pink pig.

K.P. corrects me when I call him “pitmaster.” “Just call me a cook. … Just a cook.”

Cooking meat in a giant, black smoker that resembles an old locomotive and dispatching enticing aromas into the low-slung urban neighborhood that’s divided by Murfreesboro Road’s rampaging traffic, is his passion.

“You know, I slice an onion and put the slices back on the hot spot in the smoker. That sends that aroma out.” He waves his arms, simulating the soaring savory smells that sweetly embrace me, clinging to my perspiration on this almost-summery day.

K.P. smiles, then grabs a plastic container of water and splashes a bit into the smoker, triggering a sizzle and a powerful cloud of smoke. “That will bring them in,” he says as the flavor wafts along the pike, where cars either break on through to the other side of the smoke … or are seduced by the aromas enough to stop.

“You gotta use the right amount of water. A lot of people use too much water,” K.P. explains. That may affect the cooking meat. It also may damage the black-metal meat-monster he fires up every morning and stokes all day, he cautions.

On this unseasonable, open-window-driving day, surely that onion-and-meat sizzle combo will draw even more folks off the highway as the hours for outbound commuting draw near, I reckon, my own juices flowing.

And, as for the Bell Buckle event, since the crowds weren’t making it down to the food truck, K.P. cut off chunks of brisket and pulled off some shoulder and waded among the gathered, letting them sample and directing them to the truck.

This brisket Pied Piper notes, with a bright smile, that he was “scolded” by his colleagues for giving food away. But that would be an exaggeration, as the closest thing to negative talk or critique around here is Tony’s standard joke when I’m taking pictures of his staff.

“They’re used to having their pictures taken,” he says. “Only thing is that they make them turn to the side (he turns to show both profiles) and then (he turns face-front) they have to hold those numbers in front of them.” He knows about police mugshots, as I’ll note later.

Anyway, K.P.’s strategy worked. Sure, he was giving away succulent chunks, but it fueled the appetites of soggy festivalgoers, who passionately followed the meat. And K.P., of course.

That incident illustrates K.P.’s relationship with his boss.

“He gives me freedom to do whatever I want. I’m responsible for all the meat. I couldn’t find a better place to work.” He’s just 46, but he’s planning on being the executive chef beneath the flying pink pig for the rest of his working years.

“I used to work in management, down at that Sonic,” he says, pointing perhaps 200 feet down the pike. It was a good job, and he says he enjoyed it. But management meant rules, neckties and personnel decisions.

He’s says he’s happier now wearing his Fat Boy’s T-shirt and apron, making meaty decisions, mixing and matching wood chunks and spouting occasional smiling words about his children and grandchildren.

K.P. drops out of the conversation to retrieve split wood from the diminishing pile, tote it to the smoker and feed the fire. All the while, he nurtures various meats barbecuing for the takeout orders and to prepare for what’s coming in a half-hour or so … when the commuters, rolling down Highway 41, are drawn in by the aroma rising from below that pink pig.

“I’m using hickory at the moment,” he continues. “I also use cherry, because it gives me a nice color, gets me a nice little look on the meat.”

He holds the smoker open, showcasing the colorful sheen on the ribs before he slathers on more from the big pot of his secret sauce. “I’ll tell you what, if it was pouring down rain, I’d be out here.” It’s his turf, where he answers his life’s calling.

K.P. looks in the general direction of the cement-floored dining room, where Tony is joking around with kitchen help while Rhonda works the front, taking orders and making sure each customer is treated with down-home love.

One of those customers, working over her pulled pork shoulder plate with a half-eaten fried cornbread flapjack, looks up at me and smiles when I ask if I may interrupt her dining for a moment.

“Nobody else compares,” Louise Steward says of Fat Boy’s pork and the service. “I usually get the pulled pork, smoked pork. It’s good. I come here every week, or at least three times a month.”

When she entered the establishment 20 minutes or so before, she was greeted by K.P., whose black smoker of passion she had to pass to get to the door. “How are you today?” she is asked.

Kevin Preston keeps things smoking out at Fat Boy’s. His boss has allowed Kevin to take ownership in tending the fire and the food. But don’t call him a pitmaster.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

“Better now that I’m here,” the Bell Road resident answers.

Of course, a big part of the reason – aside from the food, which in the name of research I sampled and felt fulfilled or at least fully filled – for the happiness and good cheer of the customers is the dining room’s “face” of Fat Boy’s.

Rhonda, 61, generally addresses diners as “love muffin” and proudly presides over the dining hall, even while she’s in charge of cooking the sides. She’s especially proud of the barbecue white beans, a spicy concoction that again I sampled to make sure she wasn’t blowing smoke. She wasn’t exaggerating. “No brag, just fact,” as Walter Brennan told Dack Rambo decades ago in classic TV Western “The Guns of Will Sonnett.” (I throw things like this in for fellow aging Baby Boomers who still are able to read, recall and comprehend.)

“Rhonda does a tremendous job in here,” says her boss, who uses another classic TV Western to illustrate her dedication.

“She’s not like Kitty Russell, but she cuts up and makes everybody feel comfortable,” Tony adds. Kitty Russell, for young readers, was the owner of The Long Branch Saloon in cowboy drama “Gunsmoke.”

She joined the staff seven years ago, as something of a sidekick to Tony’s sister, Tara, who took care of the front of the house when the “barbecue joint” – as Tony describes his establishment – began dispensing pig parts.

“I really want you to give credit to Tara,” Tony says. “She was here the first six or seven years. She played a big role. She damn ran the front. She was the draw.

“She was so kind to everybody. Some people don’t come anymore because she’s gone.

“I wish she could still be here. She was really cool. I don’t know what I paid her. Probably nothin’. She probably had to steal from me to get paid. She left because she got married,” he adds. “Now she stays home, raising her heathens.”

But even if Tara was still here, Rhonda wouldn’t be going anywhere.

“I just love him to pieces,” says Rhonda, after Tony disappears to take a telephone takeout order. “I was blessed to get this job.

“Between me and him and K.P., we get this thing done,” Rhonda points out.

There are others who work here, but she’d like to have a few more, especially younger folks, in the kitchen or helping out front, learning the trade.

“Can’t get kids to work these days,” she says, before describing her job: “I cook the sides and the desserts and keep them (her cohorts) straight.” Customers straight, too, if necessary.

While she admits Tony “has a mouth on him,” she says what comes out of it translates to terms of endearment, barbecue-joint style.

“He loves me. He appreciates me every day. Appreciates me and K.P.”

Along with the boss, that trio is nothing short of “a really good team,” she says.

The boss – who slows down now and then to talk about his life, his great team and his barbecue joint – allows that Fat Boy’s is a dream come true after sort of a rough-edged start on his professional life.

A native of Donelson – he lives out in Arrington now on a 5-acre spread so remote that “I can’t get a pizza delivered. I don’t have trick-or-treaters” – Tony began his working years skirting the edges of the gambling world.

Although Tony Roney, right, is the boss, his two top aides and friends, Kevin Preston and Rhonda Snider, say they feel almost like Fat Boy’s partners, thanks to the teamwork and attitude beneath the giant, pink pig on Murfreesboro Road.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

That’s a long time ago, and he was a different man, but he admits to dabbling as a young man in businesses “some legal and some illegal.” He never spent any time in jail, he says.

“I had to bail myself out. I had a family to feed,” he says, adding “I didn’t ever rob or steal or sell drugs.” Strictly business. Mostly gambling. It was the life he had chosen.

Although he notes he “got in a little damn trouble back in 2001 or 2002,” it was about that time he decided to change his game and his life.

“I wouldn’t do it today if you held a gun to my head,” he acknowledges, adding: “I got it in my head that I needed to live better.”

His earlier career provided a luxury lifestyle. But not the inner peace he desired.

“I got to know the Lord, to be honest with you. And he has sure blessed me and pulled me out of some crap.”

Previous wife, Jennifer, and he had a short marriage – “I don’t think we made it 36 months, but we made two beautiful babies.” Alena, 23, is in nursing school. Luke, 22, works in the restoration business.

“Alena is a really good girl. She don’t drink, smoke, cuss or chase guys that do,” he says, quickly adding that Luke – who often has lunch with pop – “is a good boy.”

Long after that marriage failed, Tony found love again, among the folks sauntering past the pink pig and entering the front door for brisket and the like.

“You won’t believe this, but her name is Jennifer, too,” he says. “I didn’t even know her. One day she came in the door here, and I said ‘I’m going to marry that woman.’ That night, I told my kids that I’d found their stepmother.

“She is a good, Christian woman who had never been married before. I knew I’d met my woman, my wife. Amen. Marriage.” (The two Jennifers get along, by the way.)

Now, most days before Tony leaves Arrington to visit his pink pig, he drinks coffee with his wife – a Realtor – while they watch “SpongeBob SquarePants” with their son Kellan, 6, the third of his “beautiful babies.” He demonstrates by showing me his picture.

Ought to note that when he first decided to rent this spot, it was to run one of those payday, fast-cash loan outfits. But the fact he believed those types of places “take advantage of people,” made him shut down.

It was then it hit him. “Damn, these people out here in Antioch need a barbecue joint. My friends said I was crazier than hell.”

He notes that was during the last recession, “when people was jumpin’ out of windows,” all kinds of business were closing … and he was planning on investing enough cash to turn his shuttered legal loan-sharking building into a barbecue shack.

Sure, it was a gamble. But then again, that never stopped him before.

It was just him and his sister then, and the first thing he needed to do was learn how to provide the main necessity of such a business. … He needed to learn how to barbecue.

“I tell you how I learned: It’s trial-and-error,” he recalls. “You get tired of burning that stuff (ribs, shoulders, brisket, etc.). It ain’t cheap. And that smoker, it’s like a 2-year-old: You need to watch it. It will get away from you if you don’t pay attention.

“I did some stuff at my house and then did some fundraisers and just learned how to use that smoker.

“It ain’t rocket science.”

Although most of the cooking now is handled by K.P., the boss is always ready to help.

“Brisket flies out of here. And the pulled pork is outstanding.” He runs down a minilist of some of the meats that benefit from that mixture of love, sauce and hickory and cherry wood: Spare ribs, sausage, wings, whole chickens, smoked turkey and more.

“I’ll stack our stuff up against anybody,” says the Fat Boy of Murfreesboro Road. “If you don’t like it, we’ll buy it back.” Some idiots have tried this ploy … after finishing their meals. They discovered “no refunds on a swallowed meal” is another rule of the house.

I sit down at one of the tables in the cement-floored barbecue shack. Tony walks away so I can sample his wares without interference.

“How you like that, Tim?” he asks, sitting down after I’ve finished. He knows what my answer will be. Stuff’s great, reminds me of the pork shoulder my late, great friend Ole Steve Pettus (Wilma Rudolph’s gospel-singing cousin) taught me to barbecue in his rural Montgomery County pit 35 years ago.

“I’m thinking we need to expand,” says Tony, this kind country gentleman with a big pink pig as his calling card. “We’re getting a good following out here.”

Probably a good idea, I nod, as I finish up my afternoon in this classic barbecue joint. I order a half-pound of shoulder and a pint of white beans to take home. After Rhonda hands me a brown sackful, I step outside and say “goodbye” to K.P. and his big smoker as I head to the car.

Tony tells me that in his life and his business he “walks with the Lord.”

Fat Boy and his friends also make damn-fine barbecue.

And I love that giant pink pig.

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