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Mike Hickman appreciates good food, and he says the food served at area barbecue joints wasn’t cutting it. He started smoking his own meat, and a hobby ignited into a restaurant he says is growing 20% each week. This month, Missouri Mike’s BBQ & More marks a year in business. From the onset serving kind-of-sort-of illegally out of his mechanic shop, M.D. Hickman Auto & Tire, to a food truck and now a brick-and-mortar eatery on the west side of town, Hickman says the journey has felt unreal at times: “I’m just a guy that loves food and I didn’t like what I was getting. This was founded out of fury.”
Here’s our interview with Mike Hickman.
How did the food truck get started?
I was cooking on Saturdays just on my homemade smoker at my mechanic shop out of the tire bay. I fill the smoker and sell it ‘till it was gone. I had this bright idea to do a smoked buffalo wing, but without a sauce on the outside – cause I didn’t have a deep fryer and I didn’t want to spin it. So, I had to smoke it. But if I added sauce, it would make the skin even soggier because with smoked wings the skin isn’t crispy. I was like, hey guys, I’m going to do 500 wings. That was like instantly gone. I’ll add another 500. Gone. All right, 1,500, that’s all I can do. By the time I got caught up to all of the orders, because I don’t like saying no, we put like 2,500 wings out on Super Bowl Sunday. The Monday after Super Bowl I got a Facebook message: Hi, my name is Eric Marcol with the Springfield-Greene County Health Department. You are selling a lot of food and you are not a food vendor. I said, to view my Facebook post you have to be friends and family. He said that’s a pretty loose definition. I said, well, I’m going into the restaurant industry, that’s the long-term goal, so I would rather have your friend than as a foe. I bought the food truck, had the smoker built. Getting my tire shop up here approved to be a vendor site was the hard part. We nailed the barbecue, and I was like, we’re pretty good at this.
How have you honed your craft?
We started playing with the science of meats, starting with fire. How do we generate good smoke? How do we utilize that in the smoker? We custom built our smoker. It’s a rotisserie that has a sear plate and it’s direct. Our meats are on the smoker full-term, it doesn’t get pulled partially smoked and wrapped and cooked. Pork butts are 16 to 18 hours, brisket is 12 to 14, burnt ends are 12 to 14. Burning wood, instead of smoldering it, the smoke is lighter, sweeter. We did the same testing with meat, spices and salts. This is just a big science fair project. Just don’t shortcut your customer is what it boils down to. They’ll pay your prices. And our food cost is hilarious. My labor is hilarious, but you know what? We stay busy and we’re growing.
Why did you decide to move to a brick-and-mortar?
The weather played a huge part. We bought tents and then the wind took the tents out. There were lines in the rain. I had people on payroll and with barbecue, you can’t be like, oh, we’re going to not do it today. It was prepped out three days ago and it was cooked overnight. We can’t just turn it off. I’d been looking at buildings and it was just kind of a pipe dream. One day, Tim, who owned T-Bairz here, kind of a biker bar, he came up to the food truck and said, I’m shutting it down. I’ve got a lease, but I don’t want to move anything, so you have to buy the tables, the chairs, the equipment, all of it. I had the equipment and buying his just to have seconds didn’t make sense; the location didn’t make sense – none of it made sense. I’m only four months in; it’s 4,000 square (feet). But I was like, weather sucks. Let’s do it. On Jan. 19 we opened up here as a brick-and-mortar. The location is kind of hilarious. It’s a west side strip mall, wrong side of town, and we pack the house.
What have you learned about yourself over this past year?
I have to hand over the reins and trust the people I put in place. I can’t do it all, so I can only hope that people emulate my uncompromising ways, because if not, they don’t last with me. I don’t know why I’m in the restaurant industry other than somebody said I bet you won’t. Restaurants are pretty simple: Offer good food and good service, the rest will fall in place. I’m very uncompromising. I buy the best of everything. I will put sold out on it before I sell an inferior product. This is my fun job. My un-fun jobs are crunching numbers at the mechanic shops.
What’s your biggest piece of advice for a bar or restaurant owner?
Jump now and look later. What’s it going to cost, a little bit of money? A lot of money? You can get that back. But if you ever look back and say, I wish I would have, what is that worth to you?
Heirloom Candle Bar moved; art supply thrift store Arrow Creative Reuse opened; and Rockford, Illinois-based Beef-A-Roo debuted in Springfield.
We just ate at Missouri Mike's and it is by far the best meat we have ever had. So glad this was covered by SBJ!
We will be back.
Marlene & Gerald Chism