Food & Drink

Wood smoke, spice rubs and smiles Veteran opens Smoke'n BBQ Pitts in NewBo City Market

Brooke Schwartz (center) rings up Seth Pennock (left) of Cedar Rapids as he orders lunch at Smoke’n BBQ Pitts in NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. After years of cooking for private and church events, Jim Pitts wants to share his beef, pork and chicken dressed with homemade dry rubs and sauces with a wider audience. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Brooke Schwartz (center) rings up Seth Pennock (left) of Cedar Rapids as he orders lunch at Smoke’n BBQ Pitts in NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. After years of cooking for private and church events, Jim Pitts wants to share his beef, pork and chicken dressed with homemade dry rubs and sauces with a wider audience. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Jim Pitts, grew up learning to cook from his mother Shirley Pitts and grandmother Viola Pitts.

“I was always the one that stood by my mother or grandmother, licking the bowls. I was always watching and learning,” he said. “It was a passion that was instilled in me.”

He’s channeling that passion into his business Smoke’n BBQ Pitts, which opened in NewBo City Market at the end of September with a limited menu featuring things like pulled pork and beef brisket sandwiches, smoke pork tenderloin, barbecue nachos, wings and a few sides.

He plans to expand his offerings with more sides and desserts, including cobblers and pies he cooks in his smoker. That’s a technique he picked up from his grandmother.

“My grandmother used a wood smoke oven even into the 1960s. She just liked using it,” he said. “It gives them a rustic, wood-fired baked flavor.”

His favorite smoked dessert is pecan pie.

“The wood roasting of the pecans, and the crust absorbing the wood flavor, too, just wakes up the whole pie,” he said.

He said he models his barbecue style after Central Texas barbecue, using a dry rub only.

“But I take ideas from different regions to make my own style and have a little flair,” he added.

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His business aspirations don’t end with the NewBo City Market stand. He envisions a fleet of franchised barbecue food trucks, along with a brick and mortar restaurant. He also creates his own sauces and dry rubs, which he plans to package and sell.

Barbecue hasn’t always been his career of choice. Born and raised in the Cedar Rapids area, he retired from the air force in 1995 after serving in the Gulf War.

“I wanted to move back home, replant my roots,” he said.

He worked a variety of jobs, everything from operating a camera for TV news to driving a delivery truck to managing an AutoZone. He still drives a school bus part time.

“I like the kids. It makes things fun. I don’t have many grandkids locally, so I get my fill of kids, with all different types of personalities,” he said.

Around 2004 he got a bullet-style charcoal meat smoker, which he used to smoke meat for his son’s graduation party. Family and friends gave good feedback, and soon people were hiring him to smoke meat for their own parties. He started smoking for birthdays, reunions and even weddings.

“After years of peer pressure and encouragement and people hinting toward it, I decided I need to make this a business,” he said.

In 2016, he got a business license, outfitted a trailer and started catering big events. The first major gig he did was pulled pork for 400 people at his church. That went well, so he booked a vendor spot at the Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival.

“I was selling barbecue until lights out for the fireworks — almost 300 pounds of cooked meat,” he said. “That sealed the deal. If I can handle that kind of a crowd, I don’t think there’s anything I can’t handle.”

There’s some stress involved, but he said it’s worth it.

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“It’s tiresome, sure, but I don’t feel like its work. It’s a hobby. I have fun, I love it,” he said. “I do it for the smiles on people’s faces. That’s my biggest reward. My grandmother always said her favorite customer was the one with the smile on their face.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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