Photos Rob Smith
It’s impossible to miss. Shining fire-engine red in the sunshine, Fuel BBQ & Grill juts into the sky at 5 East 12th Street in Rome, Georgia. Businesswoman Domonique Mixon and Chef Stephen Patterson (he goes by Chef Steve) have recently expanded their business interests from real estate to owning and operating their own restaurant. In the short time they’ve been open, they have already secured a loyal following among Northwest Georgia’s BBQ lovers. Many people have come in, tried the fare, and later returned with family and friends. The regulars just keep coming.
A PLACE OF THEIR OWN
When Mixon and Patterson decided to open a BBQ restaurant in Rome, they first looked at a former gas station as the location for it. That’s where the marketing theme originated. The space was a quirky one, unexpected, just eclectic enough to please both their tastes. But when the deal on that property fell through, they had to find something else.
That’s when they agreed to purchase their restaurant’s current home. The building on East 12th Street, a former weighing station for an old granary, had languished unused for a very long time, and needed lots of tender loving care. Mixon says, “When I saw that office space upstairs, I was sold.” The restauranters made a plan, hired all the right people to make the building what they wanted it to be, rolled up their sleeves, and got to work.
When the gas station vision refused to go away, they embraced it, switching gears from the literal to the symbolic. Mixon says, “We liked the idea that our BBQ helped to fuel people’s lives, so we went with it and kept the name, Fuel.” Patterson, who spearheaded the décor of the 12th Street location, says, “I kept the look from our gas station idea. I liked the concept, so I used lots of signage, keeping that industrial feel.”
On the interior, he repeated the exterior’s color scheme of black, bright red, and highlights of sunny yellow. The result is a tip of the hat to the past, while keeping its feet planted firmly in the present. The interior design honors the building that has stood as a landmark in the neighborhood for generations, while still giving it a modern, urban vibe. In the present market of cookie-cutter franchise eateries, Fuel BBQ & Grill stands out as unique. Everything about it reads as local, nostalgic, settled-in, as if it has been there for years.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE HICKORY
One of the things that distinguishes one restaurant’s BBQ from that of another’s is what kind of wood is used in its smoking process. Not just any old tree will do. For instance, Fuel makes its own coals from hickory wood. Patterson swears by it. “This is Kentucky-style BBQ,” he says proudly, “and that means it’s vinegar-based and hickory smoked.” Patterson becomes visibly excited and begins waxing eloquent when he starts talking about smoking meat. He leans forward and his hands become a blur as he talks. Smoking the meat must be done just so.
There’s a right way to do it, and there’s a wrong way to do it; and when it comes to what is allowed into his kitchen, his way is the right way. Each step must achieve Chef Steve’s rigorous standards. Patterson loves overseeing the whole process personally. “As a matter of fact,” he says, “I’d stay out there at the smokehouse all the time if I could get away with it.” He shrugs and smiles. “But since I’m the chef, I gotta run the kitchen.”
Fuel’s menu offers crowd-pleasing favorites like smoked pork butt, brisket (chopped or sliced), Polish sausage, ribs (with the bone) and rib tips, and smoked chicken. They also have deviled farm eggs, loaded fries, chili cheese fries, wings, and Brunswick stew. The sandwiches, called “handwiches”, are available in all the varieties of smoked meat, and they also serve gourmet hamburgers and hotdogs.
The sides are classics: three-cheese mac, baked beans, coleslaw, potato salad, and collard greens. The desserts, in and of themselves, are worth a visit to the restaurant; they are all made fresh daily onsite by Patterson’s mother, Mama Faye. She makes caramel cake, sweet potato pie, and peach cobbler (and other seasonal cobblers).
A CAN-DO DUO
If the adage “opposites attract” is true, Domonique Mixon and Stephen Patterson are proof of it. Observing their very different personalities, a stranger might not pair them together as business partners, but that stranger would be wrong. Mixon is the steady hand on the rudder, steering the restaurant through the daily challenges of stormy details and occurrences.
Chef Steve is the wizard with the food, keeping the kitchen moving, the smoker smoking, and the customers full and satisfied. They are the yin and yang of BBQ. She is a listener; he is a talker. She is soft-spoken; he is animated and exuberant. If Mixon is a dove, quiet and serene, Patterson is a hummingbird, restless, ready to flit away at a moment’s notice. It’s clear that their differences make them need each other. He brings the energy, and she brings the ballast. It’s a winning combination.
Their different backgrounds were certainly no guarantee they would start a restaurant together. “I had never worked in a restaurant before,” Mixon says. Her experience was in business and real estate in Chicago. She was used to buying and selling properties and serving as a landlord. Patterson, on the other hand, says, “And I had worked in every kind of restaurant you could imagine.” As a matter of fact, Patterson had worked in the food industry since childhood, even in his father’s BBQ business.
Since those early days, Patterson has served in virtually every role in every type of restaurant possible, from fast food to family diners to white-tablecloth fine dining. Even before co-founding Fuel, Patterson owned and operated a BBQ food truck, but until Fuel came along, he had never owned his own brick-and-mortar restaurant. (He still has the food truck and plans to eventually use it to expand Fuel’s reach into the community.) Having now joined forces, Mixon and Patterson create a synergy that has built Fuel BBQ & Grill up from scratch.
SHOOTING FOR THE STARS
As a chef, Stephen Patterson keeps his eyes on the stars. The Michelin stars, that is.
In 1904, the French tire company Micheline began publishing The Michelin Guide, a series of guidebooks designed to help travelers find the highest quality eateries in various cities around the world. Each year, the guidebook awards stars to a select few restaurants throughout the world, and these badges of honor can make the reputations of restaurants and their chefs, catapulting them above the competition. This means entrance into an elite club of restauranters. The Michelin star is widely considered the ultimate hallmark of culinary excellence.
According to the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), the awarding of one Michelin star means “the restaurant is considered ‘very good in its category’, having a quality menu and prepares cuisine to a consistently high standard.” Receiving two stars means “the restaurant has excellent cuisine delivered in a unique way and has something exceptional to offer—it’s ‘worth a detour’ to visit while traveling.” Three stars is the grand prize, so to speak.
ICE describes the recipient of three Michelin stars as a restaurant that “has exceptional cuisine and [is] thus ‘worth a special journey’ just to visit. Rather than being a stop on the way to a destination, this restaurant is the destination. This restaurant serves distinct dishes that are executed to perfection.”
Although any listing within The Michelin Guide is a high honor for any restaurant, Patterson is clearly never going to be satisfied with one star or two stars. He wants three Michelin stars. Both he and Mixon want their restaurant to become a destination for people in Northwest Georgia and beyond. A road-trip-worthy kind of place. Patterson’s enthusiasm for this objective cannot be exaggerated. “That’s my goal!” he says emphatically. “I want Fuel to earn three Michelin stars! Not one, not two…three!” He holds up three fingers for emphasis. “We can do it, too!” he insists. “And we will!”
UNITY AT THE DINNER TABLE
One might imagine how different the world would be if all significant decisions—both public and private—were discussed, debated, and ratified at dining tables heavily laden with steaming plates of BBQ. A hearty meal together, whether with friends or competitors, would surely foster companionable conversations on any range of topics.
Great food unites, bad food divides. The home page of Fuel’s website features a quote from Anthony Bourdain: “Barbeque may not be the road to world peace, but it’s a start.” The late great celebrity chef, author, and travel documentarian may have been on to something there—something that Mixon and Patterson have figured out, too. The food at Fuel BBQ & Grill gives the customer a sense of peace and well-being. It’s the fellowship of food. Mixon explains it succinctly, saying, “We sell comfort food. It makes people feel good.”
Fuel BBQ & Grill is open Wednesday-Sunday, 11:00 AM-7:00 PM. Visit them online at fuelbbqrome.com.