BROOKSVILLE — Willie Flott developed a reputation for bucking trends in the most perilous of business ventures. Without formal restaurant training, in 2008 he opened On Q Smokehouse Grill in St. Leo. He survived the economic slump and kept the restaurant going with servings of ribs, smoked mullet and savory Southern sides.
Six months ago, Flott, 58, expanded his family-owned enterprise to a second location in downtown Brooksville. Ever counterintuitive, he opted for a building marked lousy by a string of flops.
"I don't believe in jinxes," Flott said. "But I do believe in my customers."
Flott picked the historic Jennings Building across from the Brooksville courthouse to get closer to his many regulars who had to drive 40 miles to On Q. And he discovered that all but one downtown restaurant closed by 3 p.m.
"It didn't deter me," Flott said. "I wanted to end the mentality that there's nowhere to eat."
In contrast to the St. Leo Southern Cracker house-turned-grill, with small rustic rooms and a wrap-around porch, the Brooksville On Q has a more upscale, urban atmosphere. The front glass wall floods ambient light onto brick walls, exposed duct work, a 10-stool polished wooden bar, roomy leather booths and seven table tops. Wall sconces and muted modern fixtures create a cozy mood for dinner time.
Word of mouth spread, and On Q currently is serving 85 to 100 customers daily, Flott said. At the same time, the restaurant's catering services are booked, mostly for weddings and family reunions, into January 2015.
Flott and his wife, Paula, moved to North Tampa from their native Alabama in 1982. He worked for a technology company in Clearwater and drove a mobile kitchen barbecue truck. His dream to start a Southern-style restaurant was postponed by landlords unwilling to rent space to an inexperienced entrepreneur.
"From then on, my extra time was spent picking the brains of every barbecue owner I could find," Flott said. "I did my homework, accepted everybody's recipes and created my own. I already had the mindset of running a business."
He studied demographics and chose the St. Leo/San Antonio/Dade City area for its neighborhoods with money and the nearby Saint Leo University student population. Finding the commercially zoned property at the State Road 52 traffic jog was a stroke of luck, he said, for its slower flow and ample parking.
"The business went from zero to 100 one day after opening," Flott said. "Already I was understaffed and under-equipped. Since then I've gained a real foothold."
Flott's four food vendors and a commercial fisherman make deliveries three times per week at both locations. The smoking process happens in several pits behind the St. Leo On Q.
"I learned that smoked mullet was an old staple in the area, so I added it to the menu," Flott said. "I can hardly keep our mullet spread or house barbecue sauce in stock."
Mixing mullet with relish, onions and his secret ingredient — Miracle Whip — makes it a favorite.
Flott describes himself as an introvert, but he's always listening to his customers. Thanks to a suggestion from a local dentist, Flott sells "a ton" of beef brisket salad, with romaine, tomatoes and tri-colored sweet peppers.
"I don't like to stand out in the crowd," Flott said. "It's not about me. It's about the food."