David Knight, owner and president of Ole Hickory Pits in Cape Girardeau, is dwarfed by the company’s largest barbecue oven, known as “Hogzilla.” The unit features 144 square feet of cooking surface and is capable of smoking 4,000 pounds of meat at a time.
When David Knight says his job is the pits, don’t feel too sorry for him. That’s just the way he wants it. After all, as the owner and president of Ole Hickory Pits in Cape Girardeau, David has watched his business grow as the appeal of barbecue has expanded well beyond its traditional Southern roots during the past 30 years.
Today, his company is an industry leader, offering around 20 models of stainless steel, wood-burning smoker ovens capable of cooking anywhere from 40 to 4,000 pounds of meat at a time.
“Barbecue is truly the American cuisine,” he says. “It’s the culinary chameleon. It fits the full spectrum of cuisines and restaurants, from the mom-and-pop, sloppy Joe, barbecue joints up to the haute cuisine, ‘pinkies up’ kind of places.”
Ole Hickory Pits smokers can be found churning out barbecue from coast to coast and around the world, from trendy New York City eateries, such as Manhattan’s Blue Smoke, to restaurants across Missouri and the Midwest. The company has been mentioned in the New York Times, Vogue magazine and even featured recently on the late night television show, “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
Large franchises such as Bandana’s and Rib Crib use the company’s smokers, as does Lambert’s Cafe in Sikeston. Even Arthur Bryant’s, arguably Missouri’s most legendary barbecue restaurant, relies on Ole Hickory Pits’ smokers.
“In the original store, they still have the old ceramic pit out where the customers can see it,” says David. “They fire it up every day, but the lion’s share of the beef brisket cooked at Arthur Bryant’s is in the back on two of our pits and has been for years.”
David’s start in the barbecue business began not as an industrial entrepreneur, but as a restaurateur in the1970s. After teaching marketing and management at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, the Poplar Bluff native wanted to return to Missouri and give the real business world a try.
On a weekend visit home, he traveled to Cape Girardeau where he found a building downtown that had been abandoned for more than a decade.
The Ole Hickory Pits logo can be found on barbecue smoker ovens from coast to coast and around the world, including as far away as Japan.
“When I saw it, I thought it would make a beautiful spot for a restaurant,” recalls David, a member of SEMO Electric Cooperative.
Fascinated by the smoky science of barbecue since he was a boy — a friend’s family owned a barbecue joint in Poplar Bluff — he decided he would try his hand at it.
With the help of his brother, David built a traditional brick pit in the back of the restaurant. Soon, the 10-by-5-foot oven, with three large metal doors on the front and a 13-inch flue stretching three stories tall, was smoking meat at David’s new restaurant, Port Cape Girardeau.
“The oven worked great, but it was manually controlled,” David says. “You opened and closed the damper by pulling a chain. Problem was, if you forgot to close it, the hotter it would get. Then, you’d have 600 pounds of meat dripping on the fire and eventually turning it into a blast furnace.
“After the third time the fire trucks came, we decided there should be a better way to barbecue.”
David began working on a new type of smoker oven, one that would get the fire out from underneath the meat. Using steel instead of bricks, he separated his pit into two chambers — one for the fire and one for the food. This allowed the heat and smoke to be controlled with a thermostat, bringing a new level of consistency and predictability to the smoking process. After a bit of trial and error, the first Ole Hickory Pits oven was cranking out barbecue.
Soon, David was managing both Port Cape Girardeau and a fledgling barbecue equipment business. As word spread and the industry took notice, he made the decision to sell the restaurant and focus solely on building pits.
Today, 45 employees at Ole Hickory Pits produce more than 300 smokers each year for restaurants, caterers, fundraisers, disaster relief organizations, convenience stores and the competition circuit.
The pits range in size from 8 to 144 square feet of cooking surface. The largest, known as “Hogzilla,” is nearly 11 feet tall and is large enough to garage a Volkswagen. Its 36-rack rotisserie is the ultimate Ferris wheel at a carnivore’s carnival.
“That’s the beauty about barbecue,” says David, referring to their largest pit’s nickname. “We never take ourselves too seriously.”
David Knight, owner and president of Ole Hickory Pits in Cape Girardeau, stands with the company's Convecture Tri Oven, which uses a unique patented circulation method to achieve the heat movement used in convection ovens.
Dennis Meiser, owner of Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q in Cuba, bought an Ole Hickory Pits smoker for his restaurant in 2001.
“I researched some of the better brands, and Ole Hickory seemed to be the best one out there that would work for me,” he says. “It’s been a good one. For the first five years, I didn’t do anything to it, except abuse it.”
Each week at his restaurant — which was voted southeast Missouri’s “Best Barbecue” in the 2008 Best of Rural Missouri contest — Meiser smokes several hundred pounds of beef, pork and poultry. He says the pit’s consistency is its strongest attribute.
“There’s no guessing on the time or the temperature,” he says. “It just runs like a champ. You put something in there, put the right amount of wood in there, set it and forget it.”
The ever-expanding phenomenon of barbecue competitions and cook-offs has spurred the demand for mobile smokers, and Ole Hickory Pits offers wheeled and trailer-mounted units. The modern technology can help provide an advantage.
“With our combination of features — the insulation, the convection fans, the thermostats — we’re able to achieve a smooth, even temperature with precision, day in, day out, 24-7,” David says. “Once you turn it on, as long as you add a log every six hours, it will hold its temperature indefinitely.
Such control gives competitors a leg up, especially on windy, rainy days, allowing them to focus on other aspects of the contest, such as seasoning and presentation.
Costs vary by model and features, but range from $3,000 to $50,000.
This spring, Ole Hickory Pits took another step in its evolution, entering the consumer market with the introduction of its UltraQue, a smaller, free-standing model designed for backyard use.
“It’s designed with home entertaining in mind, but would also be the perfect size for recreational use like hunting camps,” David says, noting that the model is available in 16 different camouflage patterns. “It’s for the guy who just thought he had everything.”
After more than 30 years in the barbecue business, David still beams with enthusiasm for the cuisine that captured his imagination as a child.
“People ask me if I ever dreamed of being where we are today, and I tell them, yes, but I didn’t think it’d take this long,” David says with a laugh. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to ride along with the trend in barbecue.”
To learn more about Ole Hickory Pits barbecue ovens and accessories, go online to www.olehickorypits.com or call 800-223-9667 or 573-334-3377.