The hot, woodsy smell of smoked meat rises from the bellies of Joe Shirley's smokers. He arranges cuts of beef, pork and ribs for the customers standing in front of the shiny red trailer that boasts "the best daggum B-B-Q." • It's a Thursday, and the lunch rush at Smokin' Joe's BBQ in Lithia is in full swing. • Dump trucks, pickup trucks and sheriff's deputies' cars fill the parking lot. Their passengers wait in line for large sandwiches and homemade strawberry lemonade. • William Sands of Dover once asked for a smaller portion but was told, "We have one size and one size only."
And that's a lot, Joe Shirley said. "We try to serve you more than you expect."
Shirley, 43, started serving smoked meat out of the trailer about 10 months ago. Before then, he worked inside the adjacent meat store that his brother, Rick Shirley, 41, opened almost five years ago, called Rick's Custom Meats.
Their family-run operation is just north of the intersection of County Road 39 and Lithia- Pinecrest Road.
On weekdays, the parking lot is packed with the trucks of workers from Lithia and beyond. When school is in, there's also an after-school rush of hungry Durant and Newsome high school students. Lately, the brothers have seen more FishHawk Ranch residents on Saturdays.
Sheriff's deputies stop by Smokin' Joe's for lunch on weekdays. They come from their training center 4 miles south, Deputy Mark Buswell said, because it's "good, close and fast."
Joe and Rick Shirley's meat business may be young, but their story begins when each was 14. The Lithia-born boys worked at Davis Grocery's meat department after classes let out at Plant City High School.
The brothers learned how to cut and wrap meat at the small, family-owned store, which helped them land jobs as meat cutters for Publix after they graduated.
They worked in the meat department of Publix for about a decade each, rising to management. Rick Shirley left Publix to try his own thing — processing meat for hunters and farmers in a small building behind his house. He soon needed help, and Joe joined him.
After three years, their backyard business became too demanding. Hunters knocked on Rick Shirley's door on holidays when he was home with his kids. They'd ask him to process trucks filled with deer.
"It was driving me nuts," he said. "It was so busy."
So he moved to the building where he first learned how to process meat.
Davis Grocery had been closed for years, and the building was vacant when Rick Shirley asked the second generation of Davises if he could lease the space.
That same day he had the key in hand.
About a week later, Rick's Custom Meats opened.
Jerky, elk, deer, frog — but no lizard
It has been 22 years since the first Shirley brother started working at the shop, and the small wooden building is once again buzzing with customers. Several meat cases display cuts of beef, chicken, pork and exotic meat. Cuban sandwiches and iced tea draw locals in for lunch.
Rick Shirley is proud of his 20 varieties of homemade jerky, including alligator and buffalo. He says he can order just about any type of meat a customer asks for — anything but iguana.
"One guy asked for iguana, and I couldn't find it," he said.
But he does carry elk, venison, pheasant and frog legs. He even ordered rattlesnake at $35 a pound for one customer.
Refrigerated cases full of sodas and fruit drinks that can't be found at most supermarkets line the back wall. Whether it's for dye-free Tommy's Naked Soda or old-fashioned, cherry-flavored Cheerwine, Rick Shirley said he sees people come in just to buy six-packs of drinks.
Locals asked, and they received
After the lunch rush ends, Rick Shirley sits at the table in the back of the store near a corner filled with antiques that his parents sell. He points at pictures in a scrapbook of the store's first year.
Back then, the walls weren't decorated with old-fashioned signs. Cans of vegetables, bags of potato chips, and bottles of sauces and spices didn't line store shelves. Then, it was all about the beef, pork and chicken.
It didn't remain that way for long.
If someone asked for venison, the brothers ordered it. If others wanted drinks, they bought some. The store is what it is today because that's what locals asked for, Rick Shirley said.
The brothers talk easily to their customers. They say they know about 90 percent of the people who stop by because they went to school with them and sit next to them in church. Their children introduce them to new families.
Rick Shirley's mother-in-law, who works the store's register, knows many of the local families, too. Lyvonne Yelton moved to Lithia in 1969, and she's the store's unofficial greeter. When William Sands approaches the register, she points to a photo of the 1950 Pinecrest High School football team and names the boys.
As one customer leaves the store, he yells to Yelton: "I love you, baby, but I've got to go."
Yelton laughs and explains. "He comes at least once a week, and he always says, 'Honey, I'm home!' " she said.
Rick and Joe Shirley want to expand their business and buy the Davis building. They have a loyal local fan base, but they're looking to draw others.
Cal Cooley is a new customer, and he says he'll be a regular for 480 days. That's the length of the bridge construction project he's working on just down the road.
"I just like their cooking," he said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.