Throughout this week, we're sharing DFW.com contributor Malcolm Mayhew's profiles of five people who are making their mark in North Texas barbecue. Our most recent installments introduce us to Justin Fourton of Pecan Lodge in Dallas, and the family who runs Hickory Stick BBQ in Everman. Earlier this week, we profiled woman behind the sign at Mama E's in Fort Worth, and Bryan McLarty, a Southlake man who takes his smoking skills around the region in competition barbecue events.
Hickory Stick BBQ in Everman is the quintessential small town restaurant, the kind of place immortalized and romanticized in Friday Night Lights and Larry McMurtry novels, the kind of place you'll find tumbling down the back roads of Texas. You open a squeaky screen door to find employees who call you "hun" and "sir" and regulars nursing sweet teas, plates of ribs and bags of chips, and talking Everman Bulldogs.
Mark Jones has worked here since he was 14 years old; he's now 50. His parents opened Hickory Stick on Aug. 12, 1976, and now that his father, Johnnie, has passed away and his mother, Mary, has grown older, Jones runs the place practically alone, assisted by a small staff and his wife, Marci, who works a few hours a week. Their two daughters, Lyndsey and Lauren, have worked here over the years. His mom, Mary, makes peach cobbler and banana pudding every day, and on Friday, she bakes 12 pies for the restaurant and comes in to wash dishes.
It's a big world out there, but Mark has never cared much about seeing it, he says. His life is here, along these wood paneled walls decorated with taxidermy and drawings by students from nearby elementary schools. Thirty-six years, he's been dishing out sliced brisket and coleslaw and baked beans and his mom's homemade desserts and, never once, he says, has he had aspirations to do anything else.
"This is the only job I've ever had," he says. "I had a little hip surgery a while back but aside from that, I've only missed 11 days. This place has always been my life."
Jones' work days start the night before, as he loads up his Southern Pride rotisserie smoker for the next day's service. True to the restaurant's name, Jones uses hickory to smoke his meats; brisket gets the most smoke, 16 to 18 hours' worth.
As has been the case since Day One, brisket remains his top seller. His is not messy, fatty brisket; there is no "moist" brisket here. Instead, you get clean, lean equally proportioned slices, trimmed away of fat and crowned with a thin layer of black crust; sauce comes on the side.
"I use a special trim brisket that already has the fat trimmed off," he says. "What little remains, I trim it myself. There might be a tiny bit of fat here and there. I do it the way my dad taught me. You come here to get beef, not fat."
Although it attracts its fair share of tourists and barbecue chasers, Hickory Stick has a built-in, loyal audience, made up of workers from Halliburton and Alcon, and neighborhood old-timers, who come in at 8 a.m. for coffee and honey buns and often stick around 'til lunchtime for brisket, St. Louis-style pork ribs, sausage and turkey.
"Same guys every day," Jones says. "A lot of 'em been coming here since the day we opened. Some of 'em will say to me, 'I remember when you had to stand on a Coke box to reach the register.'"
An extra room was added in 2004, along with beer; aside from that, little has changed at Hickory Stick. Same menu, no interior revamps. The main dining room still has chairs from downtown's Hotel Texas (now the Hilton Fort Worth).
"My daddy and I got those when the hotel got refurbished back in the '70s," Jones says. "We went down there in a cattle trailer and loaded it up. They're old chairs but they've held up."
Jones has, too. For someone who has been working in the same place for more than three decades, starting his day at 6:30 a.m. and ending it at 9 p.m., five days a week, Jones certainly has a lot of energy and enthusiasm, showing no signs of the wear and tear that can come with running a restaurant. Of course, there will come a day, years and years from now, when he won't be able to do this anymore. But for Jones, it'll be till death do they part.
"I'm hoping one of my daughters or a son-in-law will take it over," he says. "It'd be nice to have some time off. But this was my dad's place. I was the only son out of five kids, so my dad and I were real close. I grew up here. Our kids grew up here. This is part of my family.
"To be honest, I'm probably never going to get out of it."