The barbecue business is a famously difficult one. No matter how popular you ultimately become, there are a few hurdles to cooking this kind of passion-driven food that you just can’t overcome; ingredient costs are high, you sink a ton of time into your finished product, and it doesn’t really have a shelf life, meaning that anything you cook that day, pretty much has to be served that day. Estimate your needs for the day incorrectly, and you’re forced to absorb the cost of food in what is already a notoriously slim-margined type of cuisine.
The world-famous pitmasters in places like Austin or Memphis manage to skirt this problem thanks to reputation and volume; the lines for food start building at eight in the morning, and when the restaurant sells out, they close. But how can you get this kind of momentum going in a place like Rockland, Maine, a town that has an unmet need for classically-prepared, slow-cooked meat, but not necessarily the guaranteed volume needed to risk taking a flyer on two gigantic cuts of $150 wholesale brisket every single day?
If you’re chef/owner Will Rapp of the newly-christened “Up in Smoke BBQ” in Thomaston, Maine, you do it by working your ass off.
Rapp is often singlehandedly transforming a nondescript piece of asphalt on the Rockland/Thomaston town line into the barbecue capital of Midcoast Maine, and he’s doing it not as a side hustle, and not using a warchest of family money or Bitcoin winnings to pull it off. He’s building it entirely out of his own sweat, and his love for his product.
You notice the work that goes into this business immediately, starting with the wood-sided restaurant-on-wheels that Rapp built entirely himself, the letters “B-B-Q” spelled out in gigantic, wood-burnished type visible from busy Route 1, calling in favors from friends to handle the metalwork and fabrication. You notice it in the huge pile of hand-split logs, that feeds the massive steel behemoth of a Texas longhorn-tipped smoker that sits right outside, radiating heat and bellowing occasional plumes of smoke from the intensely-flavored, tender, sweating meat that is cooking slowly inside. You notice it in the array of (newly added!) tables that sit outside, all built by hand and offering precious shelter from the sweltering August sunshine.
When you build this kind of business, you do it not as a “sensible investment,” or because you think it would be a swell hobby. You do it because you love what you do and the food you produce, and you commit yourself wholeheartedly to the mission of making your restaurant a success.
“Growing up, I used to work for a friend of my dad’s,” Rapp says. “And he prided himself on building his business without ever printing one business card, or running one advertisement in the newspaper. His services were booked three years out, and he never had to promote himself.”
This drive to produce food that speaks for itself, and generates word-of-mouth buzz among our local community is working. “The response has been positive, and I’m getting really good feedback,” Will says.
We tried four items from the food truck’s regular menu: The pulled pork sandwich ($10), smoked brisket ($13), pork rib plate ($13), and single sausage plate ($8). The ribs were fall-apart tender, with just enough satisfying pull left on the bone to put these ribs into competition territory. The seasoned bark was rosey pink with smoke, and served dry (though customers can request the addition of one of three housemade sauces, including Kansas City (Sweet & Spicy), Carolina Vinegar, and Carolina Mustard).
“I’m not 100% happy with the ribs,” Rapp says after we assault him with a barrage of sticky-fingered compliments. “I mean, the flavor is where it needs to be, and I’m using super high-quality cuts, but they’re leaner than I’d like them.”
It’s the kind of comment we love hearing. In this business, there is no greater critic of food than the cook himself, who is always reaching, striving to make incremental adjustments to his or her food. Make no mistake: These ribs are far, far beyond the level of quality of any barbecue being produced in our humble township. But that’s not enough for someone like Will, who recognizes that simply being the best “in the area” isn’t enough; you need to strive to be the best, period, even if your customers are already nearly universally satisfied with your product. It’s a drive that I admire, and that leads to some truly amazing cooking.
The pulled pork sandwich was a standout, as well, served piled high on a brioche burger bun loaded with your choice of sauce. I chose the “Carolina Mustard” variety, since the sharp twang of the vinegar and mustard complements the fatty pork so perfectly. Unlike the dried out, stringy piles of pressure-cooked pork that pass for barbecue in so many places nearby, the pulled pork here was sublimely tender, each silky strand enrobed in a thin layer of rendered fat, keeping it moist, smokey, and delicious. The sauce was a hit as well; a shockingly yellow, French’s-forward* blend of acidic tang and slight spiciness that perfectly accentuated the pulled pork.
*Look, I get it: Just typing that phrase made me want to take my brain out of my skull and punch it in the chest, for daring to dream up that kind of overwrought, food-writerly d-baggery. I don’t know what to tell you. The heart wants what it wants. At least I didn’t use the word “unctuous.”
I had to return the next day to try the brisket, since it is often the first item to sell out on a busy weekend day (the truck begins serving at 11 a.m. with the available options for ordering diminishing rapidly by 2 p.m.). There was the telltale red ring from the smoke, with tender meat that pulled apart into a latticework of succulent fleshy fibers. The brisket paired perfectly with the truck’s house “Carolina Red Vinegar” sauce; throw in one of Up in Smoke’s custom-ground sausage links, slow smoked with plenty of spice and snap, and you’ve got a well-rounded, perfect meal.
Further illustrating his commitment to doing things “the right way,” Rapp isn’t just popping open plastic bins of slimy Sysco potato salad to accompany his legendary barbecue. Sides here are simple, but aren’t given short shrift; the vinegary slaw, made with both red and green cabbage, a healthy shot of vinegar, and plenty of dill, provided a thoughtful and outstanding counterpoint to the smokey, rich fattiness of the meats, and was one of the few slaws in recent memory that I devoured every last scrap of.
How long can Rapp sustain this level of high-quality cooking, as the hammer of winter threatens to fall and send us all scurrying to our burrows made of expensive heating oil and reheated beef stew? Right now, the truck is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., on Monday, Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. As far as how long Will can extend our short summer season into the fall? He’s going to play it by ear. “I’d like to keep it going at least until New Year’s, and after that, it’s tough,” he explains. “I’ve got a plow for the parking lot, so that’s no problem. But at a certain point, the cold interferes with things like my water supply. My lines will freeze, and I’ll have to wrap it up for the year.”
Until then? Go to Up in Smoke BBQ. Go early, and go often, before Will and his one-man meat wagon go into hibernation for another winter.