Thomas’ Smokey Pit Stop Founder Darryl Thomas spoke to MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about becoming a part of the Manchester, CT community and opening in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
NAN PICE: Have you always been entrepreneurial?
DARRYL THOMAS: I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and knew I wanted to be my own boss. I’ve purchased and developed a few properties, I started my own painting business, I went to school to become a certified dog trainer and began training dogs. Not to mention, I was a Dean of Students for 12 years at Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School of Excellence in Springfield. All of these experiences have been lessons to prepare me for this journey.
NAN: How and why did you decide to open a restaurant?
DARRYL: Growing up, my father and his two brothers competed over whose barbecue was best. At every family activity, we’d have another competition. So, I was exposed to the barbecue process and I picked up a lot of things. I didn’t realize how that was going to play out later on in life.
When my father passed away in 2008, his spirit for a lot of things—particularly barbecuing—really jumped into me. I wanted to barbecue and bring my family together. I purchased a trailer grill and at a family gathering in New Jersey, I was appointed the next barbeque pit master of the family. It was self-fulfilling to maintain my father’s spirit for barbecuing and receive my uncles’ approval.
I went to the University of Massachusetts, where I studied education. Any time there was a barbecue, I’d be the person to go take over the grill. I’d bring my grill to the football games and the university saw how I was bringing together folks in great numbers around the barbecue pit. Years later, they hired me as a caterer to attend all home football games. That lasted a couple of years and then I got really ambitious.
I decided to see if I could convert my offerings to a food truck and bring them to different locations. I left the Charter School in 2018. When I decided to explore this endeavor of becoming an entrepreneur by operating a food truck and doing catering, I developed the motto “failure is not an option.” My mother supported me by retiring and moving to Connecticut from New Jersey to help me with the business idea.
NAN: How did it evolve from there?
DARRYL: My first year living in Manchester, CT, I tapped into the community through Labyrinth Brewing Company, which chose to use my food truck at their grand opening about two years ago. The interest in my barbeque took off from there. The people of Manchester supported me in ways I’ve never dreamed of.
From there, I found a location in Manchester to use as my headquarters. After renovating the building and creating my commissary kitchen, I continued to operate the food truck and did a lot of catering. But there was something deep within me saying: Why not replicate my food truck idea into a takeout restaurant? I never had any intentions of opening a sit-down restaurant, because I don’t have that kind of background or training.
I had been planning for a year and, as it started to develop that a takeout restaurant was going to be in my distant future, I began to slowly renovate and prepare. With failure not being an option, there was never any obstacle I thought was going to impede on my goal.
I didn’t know about COVID-19 in January. In February, I’d heard of it, but of course, we didn’t know the impact. I already had a date for a soft opening on March 7 and a grand opening on March 18. The Manchester Chamber of Commerce had me booked for a ribbon ceremony and all the glamor of opening a new restaurant was all in my imagination.
Then the pandemic came into play and it looked like the state was going to close down. The timing was awful. I didn’t know what to do. I’d planned for people to walk through the door and come up to the counter to order food. I’d envisioned them sitting down and enjoying the atmosphere and the music. Everything I’d created was no longer in effect. I had to create a new plan within 24 hours.
NAN: So, how did you do that?
DARRYL: The state was closing down on March 18. There were a lot of details and logistics. For example, I had a point of sale (POS) system and I needed to find a way to incorporate online ordering so people logging onto the website could access the menu and be able to order. This was all stuff I hadn’t known how to do, nevermind how to train the staff.
The first week, we were running around like we didn’t know what we were doing because we didn’t know what we’re doing! But we opened the doors.
NAN: Because failure was not an option.
DARRYL: Right. And what came through the doors on those first days were people from the Manchester area who been driving by and were excited to see that a new barbecue restaurant was getting ready to open. They were supportive about having a new business in town. Our business spread through word of mouth.
One thing that benefited me is, I didn’t have any bad practices pre-COVID. So, I didn’t know how to run restaurant prior to the pandemic. Therefore, when the COVID-19 shutdown hit on the day I opened, it was a new lesson every day thereafter. So much was changing in terms of the guidelines by the CDC and protocols for the state for takeout restaurants.
NAN: What would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your entrepreneurial journey?
DARRYL: Life dictates change. You have to be willing to accept what life brings you and adapt to it and change. It requires perseverance. You’ve got to have thick skin and be willing to deal with a challenge when it comes. These are principles I live by.