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Growing home-style barbecue chain a hit

While driving home to Clearwater on a sunny afternoon last week, Antonio Villani suddenly made a quick turn off West Bay Drive in Largo.

"I was driving up the road and saw this grill on fire and it smelled really good," he said, after parking his car at Curt Luke's Smokin' Rib Shack. Villani, 22, said he had to stop and buy some ribs after that whiff of burning oak and cooking meat.

New customers are often lured by the smoke from the huge outdoor smokers with chrome stacks, said owner Curt Luke. But it's the product, he said, that brings them back.

He specializes in Southern-style, smoked-daily barbecue ribs, chicken, pork and beef sandwiches and dinners with sides of cole slaw, potato salad and homemade pork and beans, with sweet potato pie for dessert.

"We offer home-style barbecue that you don't get at mass-produced places," Luke said.

Dinners for a family of four range from $23 for a slab of ribs to $15.50 for a pound of pork. Dinners include two side dishes. Single dinners range from $8 for ribs to $5 for sausage. The tab is $6.19 for a really big pork sandwich, $4 for a chicken breast sandwich, $4.25 for chopped pork, $4.50 for chopped beef, $3 for sausage and $6 for a sandwich of ribs. The restaurant also does catering and deliveries; it is open Monday through Saturday.

Luke opened the Smokin' Rib Shack at 1359 S Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater, in January last year, then opened a second at 600 West Bay Drive in Largo this summer. Luke said the success of the businesses enabled him to open a second Clearwater location at 2257 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd. in the former Fred Fleming's restaurant.

The second Clearwater Rib Shack opens today with the same menu as the other two businesses, except this one will sell beer and there is seating for some 125 customers.

"We're going from locations where we have seating for 25 and from 672 to 900 square feet to seating for 125 and 3,500 square feet," Luke said. "This is a big jump for us _ I'm really excited."

Luke has eight employees _ cousins and long-time friends _ working at the smaller location. Each took an investment of between $10,000 and $12,000 in startup costs, he said. He is hiring six new employees to start the business on Gulf-to-Bay and expects to invest between $40,000 and $45,000 in it. His manager at the new Rib Shack, Corey Miller, is the creator of the pork and bean recipe.

His smokers are custom made by a company in Tampa, Reliable Welding. "All the smokers have names _ Johnnie Mack after my grandfather, Johnnie Mack Jr., Percy and Bo-Bo," Luke said, laughing.

The largest smoker is named Big Boy and can cook enough food to feed 1,000 people, Kurt said. It measures 8 feet wide and 19 feet long. Platforms on each side expand it to an additional 8 feet in width. Inside there are numerous compartments and racks. The cost of building Big Boy was about $9,500, he said.

He uses a small base of charcoal to get the fire going, then uses seasoned oak wood and some green oak wood. "I use oak because it's mild and provides a nice smoke flavor," he said.

Luke, 34, a lifelong resident of Pinellas County, said he shops for the meats himself. "I shop twice a week and get deliveries on Mondays and Thursdays," he said. "I like this business, and I like being hands on, that's my job _ quality control."

He first formed the idea for his business while a student at the University of South Florida.

"I had to come up with two business plans," he said. One of them he had been nurturing for some time _ an idea for a barbecue business.

He learned to cook from his parents, who enjoyed preparing family meals together. Two years after graduating, Luke put his plan to work and bought a small barbecue business in Largo from a man who was retiring. After a year, he expanded and moved a couple miles down the road. He was there until early last year, when he opened the Smokin' Rib Shack on Fort Harrison Avenue in Clearwater.

He's looking to Palm Harbor for a fourth location, he said. "I'd like us to get as many locations that we can," he said, "and still maintain the quality."

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