Thursday, August 18, 2011
Fueling up at Bloomington's Short Stop Food Mart
Editor's note: This article was updated on Oct. 6 to include information about Short Stop's first attempt at beef brisket, which also was posted to Urbanspoon.
Chris Smith is so confident that folks will keep coming back for Short Stop Food Mart barbecue that he’ll hand you the recipe. He gave me a printed copy. He also posts his joint’s cole slaw and pasta salad recipes on his web site.
Meeting Smith for the first time, he was eager to share his story, but not in a way that would suggest cockiness. He realizes that most people will appreciate that it’s not easy to make good barbecue.
Interestingly, for Chris Smith, serving good barbecue in Bloomington, Ind., home of Indiana University, came by “inadvertently.”
Since 2001, the Bloomington native has been the land owner for the Short Stop Food Mart. The neighborhood grocery and gas station has been a fixture at the corner of Smith Road and 10th Street since 1979.
For several years, the Short Stop had merely been a good investment property for Smith, but the historic recession and skyrocketing fuel prices led him to take a more active role when the store’s operator suddenly declared bankruptcy.
In January of 2009, Smith left a position as a civil engineer in Charlotte, N.C., to take the empty place over. His stepfather previously owned the property and developed a neighboring self storage business next door in 1985. Smith didn’t want to see another community-based business die. He acknowledges that he started out selling barbecue as a means of selling more milk and gas. Now it seems to be other way around.
“My family’s not into barbecue,” he admitted. “Three years ago, we took over the store and needed to differentiate it from other stores. My brother-in-law said, ‘Let’s do barbecue.’”
They started out slow-cooking pork shoulder (but not over a grill) and sold quite a few pulled pork sandwiches that summer. But soon he realized that he needed to do things better. He turned to a best friend’s father, Tom Vernon, a serious “barbecue guy,” a 20-year member of the Kansas City Barbecue Association, for guidance.
The Ellettsville resident, who Smith said he considers like a second father, showed him the ropes and shared with him recipes for his rubs, sauces and beans. He also sold Smith a 17-foot long locomotive-themed mobile grill, the Barbecue Train, which Vernon built in 1997.
“I asked for help and in 20 minutes he gave me 20 years of barbecue experience. He just laid it on the table and said this is what I use,” Smith said in a recent interview. “That evolved into what we have today.
“We started with doing 10 shoulders – we did 100 this week. We did about 120 slabs of ribs this week and it all will sell today … It’s all because of Tom’s rub and Tom’s process. He went out and helped me find my first grill,” Smith said admiringly.
Today, the Short Stop serves some of the best barbecue in South Central Indiana. It is a winner of the Herald-Times’ reader’s choice contest, as well as the palates of hundreds of hungry Hoosiers who turn out each Thursday, when the parking lot is transformed for a weekly barbecue.
For those who don’t want ribs, pulled pork or chicken, they also sell brats, burgers and hot dogs.
Gerrick DeVane, Short Stop’s grill manager, is a fixture behind the grill on Thursdays. Every Thursday from April through October, they get going before 8 a.m. to set up and tear down a party atmosphere just outside the store and not far from the gas pumps.
While Vernon’s recipes and techniques are Midwestern in origin, the Short Stop’s sauces and cole slaw recipes lean toward the Carolina influences Smith gleaned while living there. One of the sauces is called “East I-95.”
“Barbecue connoisseurs know that’s where the tomato stops and the vinegar starts,” he said. “That’s the first time I had real barbecue, because in Indiana it’s that mushy pork filled with sauce and plopped on a sandwich.”
“When we decided to do this, we decided dry rub, dry pulled; vinegar-based sauce and vinegar-based slaw … no sauce on anything. It’s all on the side.”
It’s taken nearly three years for Smith and his team to get to this point, and while he’d eventually like to try his hand at competitive barbecue, he also is cautious not to mess with his success thus far.
“We’d like to do Madison Ribberfest (a Kansas City Barbecue Society event),” he said. “They’ve asked us to come but we’re just not old enough yet. Eventually, we’d like to do the Indiana Barbecue Association competition … But with what we’re doing here – we’re so busy – we don’t need a pat on the back to say we serve good food.”
In August, Short Stop Food Mart began offering pulled pork seven days a week and also found an interesting partner, Bloomington Bagel Co., which also now sells its version of the sandwiches on challah bread. It also does catering.
They fire up the grills four to five days a week.
From a barbecue standpoint, Indiana is not Carolina. Nor is it Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, Georgia or – gasp – Kentucky. There are many pretenders here who don’t understand the difference between grilling and barbecuing. Smith and Short Stop Food Mart have more than good intentions.
“The Carolina and Texas folks have both given us thumbs up,” he said. “They’ll be in town with family, who’ll say they’ll take them to a barbecue joint in a gas station parking lot … They’ll walk up to me and say, ‘That’s worth it.’
“I went from doing real estate and engineering to retail and it’s been an interesting two and a half years – wonderfully painful.”
What I like about Short Stop Barbecue is that they continue to focus on making the food product the best it can be and are willing to try new things. After hitting their stride with pork and chicken, today they introduced beef brisket to the menu.
The brisket here definitely is tailored to a health-conscious Bloomington, Indiana clientele. While some places will offer you the choice of fat or trimmed pieces, Short Stop presents a sandwich that is all beef, featuring a pronounced smoke ring and a gently seasoned rub.
It was tasty but still is a work in progress if they aspire to making something a Texan would gush about.
Judging from the crowd today, a lot of people are going to go through serious withdrawal symptoms when the Thursday BBQs end soon in October.