‘Involving people in the family history’
Barbecue isn’t just a hobby for Ryan Mitchell and his father, Pitmaster Ed Mitchell, who are partnering to open a new downtown barbecue restaurant called ’Que this spring.
“When you’re coming to Ed Mitchell’s ’Que, you’re getting a piece of our lifestyle,” Ryan Mitchell said. “This is our life, versus someone else’s hobby. This isn’t a hobby. We’ve been doing this a long time. We love involving people in the family history of what we’ve been doing.”
Ryan Mitchell is a partner with his father in the restaurant after working for seven years in the Research Triangle Park with Credit Suisse as a financial analyst. He grew up helping with family businesses from a young age, going with his grandfather to farms to look at animals for meat. Later, he flipped hogs when the store became a restaurant. At that time, he wasn’t as enthusiastic.
“Growing up, it was a chore,” he said. “I hated it.”
His grandfather, Willie Mitchell, ran a corner grocery store in Wilson called Mitchell’s Groceries that sold fresh meats, produce and candy. When his grandfather died, his father took the role as head of the family, and his grandmother, Doretha, started cooking hot food.
Ryan Mitchell said it was more of an accident that they started preparing barbecue for sale. Cooking a whole hog on special occasions was a family tradition. They had cooked a hog for a family meal, and a customer walked in and asked if it was for sale.
“That was our per-chance into … selling barbecue,” Ryan said.
In the 1990s, they started phasing out the grocery items and went full steam ahead on the restaurant. Ed said people kept coming in, buying barbecue and saying how good it was.
Ed Mitchell eventually renovated the space and cooking area, and converted an attached building into a smokehouse for cooking hogs. Mitchell’s Ribs, Chicken & Barbecue gained attention from food critics. It was the traditional way they were preparing it – using the whole hog – that he said drove their notoriety.
“From then on, it was just barbecue this, barbecue that, pitmaster this, pitmaster that,” Ryan Mitchell said.
The Wilson restaurant closed in 2004. Ryan Mithcell said the area was declining.
In 2006, Ed Mitchell pleaded guilty to charges of tax evasion brought by the N.C. Department of Revenue. The charges were based on evidence from the state that Mitchell’s Ribs, Chicken & Barbecue had collected sales and income taxes, but used them for personal and business expenses.
Mitchell had also been arrested on tax charges in 1998 and in 2000, but the first case was dismissed and he got a deferred prosecution in the second. The case was later dismissed. After pleading guilty in 2006, he was placed on supervised probation for 36 months and was ordered to serve 30 days in jail.
“We have our own reasons why we think it happened, but we don’t really want to, what I call, dig up old bones,” Ed Mitchell said.
Ed Mitchell’s next move was to partner with Raleigh developer and restaurant owner Greg Hatem to open The Pit in Raleigh. The company has since opened a second location in Durham, and Mitchell branched off to start his own venture. He said he wanted to bring his son into the partnership.
Ryan Mitchell said he was laid off from Credit Suisse, but always knew he’d go back into business his dad.
“I have an opportunity now to work alongside of him, and teach him things that were taught to me, but more importantly, he is more equipped to take it to the next level than I am with the background that he has in investment banking and so forth, and to make it a solid business,” Ed Mitchell said.
They willo open ’Que in a bottom-floor space of a new building that overlooks the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The upscale casual restaurant will be on the corner of the building, with a patio that rubs shoulders with the ballpark.
On a recent tour, construction work was still underway on the interior of the space, but the walls were painted blue, orange and red, and freezers and other equipment were installed. Ryan Mitchell said there will be a bar for drinks, a grazing bar where customers can stand up to eat on the go, as well as seating inside and outside on the patio.
They have a “huge” pit cooker and smoker, a specially designed exhaust system, he said and will have TVs installed so customers in the restaurant can watch the preparations. In addition to serving barbecue, seafood and vegan options, he said they’re also working on nontraditional items like brie cheese encrusted with pork skin.
Ed Mitchell said they wanted to open the restaurant in Durham because of the number of restaurants in the city. He said they liked that the history of American Tobacco as a former tobacco factory is connected to the state’s roots in tobacco and agriculture.
They hope to be open at the start of the Durham Bulls’ season. The Bulls opener is April 3.