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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 getting a 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.

Luke's success with Southern smoked barbecue ribs, chicken, pork and beef sandwiches has enabled him to open three Rib Shack restaurants in Clearwater and Largo since January 2004. Now he's looking to Palm Harbor for a fourth location.

"I'd like us to get as many locations that we can and still maintain the quality," he said.

Luke opened the Smokin' Rib Shack, which is open Monday through Saturday, at 1359 S Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater, in January 2004. In the summer, he opened a second at 600 West Bay Drive, Largo. This week, he's opening a second Clearwater location at 2257 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd. in the former Fred Fleming's restaurant.

"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 longtime friends _ 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.