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Eli Crawford, who founded Eli's Bar-B-Que, dies at 71

Crawford kept his business, Eli’s Bar-B-Que, open just two days a week: Fridays and Saturdays.
Published Mar. 23, 2013

DUNEDIN — It looked like business as usual Friday at Eli's Bar-B-Que. Heat from an oak fire passed through a two-tiered grill the length of the shack. Smoke poured out the chimney and window screens and up into the nostrils of walkers on the Pinellas Trail behind the restaurant.

On its way, the fire singed a half-dozen slabs of ribs, several long handmade sausages and a boxful of fresh chicken.

For the past 12 years, Eli's has attracted a steady stream of tourists and locals who show up Fridays and Saturdays for some of the best barbecue around.

George, an egret, stood about 8 feet away. A half-hour before Eli's customary 11 a.m. opening, the bird stayed mostly in place, as if reserving the first spot in line. The restaurant has been feeding George for seven years.

"He won't eat out of nobody's hand but my dad's," said Eric Davis, who is manning the grill alone. "I just toss it to him because I don't trust the beak."

Davis, who once had his own smoker and had made a living at barbecue, has been the protege of restaurant founder Eli Crawford. He is not Mr. Crawford's biological son but refers to him as "Dad."

As Mr. Crawford's health declined the past two years, Davis shouldered more of the grilling. Now he and Mr. Crawford's family bear all of the responsibility for the popular spot. Mr. Crawford, who attracted a far-flung following with his open-pit barbecue, died March 14 of leukemia, Davis said. He was 71.

The restaurant was closed Friday due to Mr. Crawford's death. Davis was there to cater a 150-seat wedding. The small storefront was shuttered, with handwritten condolences from customers on poster paper. Eli's has followers in Canada, Europe and Australia, Davis said. One woman famously overnighted 3 pounds of chopped pork to a sister in Alaska.

Mr. Crawford cooked the way he had learned growing up, patiently and without gimmicks. "This is authentic barbecue," Davis said. "You see on all these different circuits — they're smoking this, they're injecting that. My dad never done none of that. He doesn't inject nothing. What he injects is the love in this food."

Elijah Crawford was born in Valdosta, Ga., one of 15 children. As a young man he worked as a butcher in New York City, then for a Winn-Dixie in Clearwater. He also learned to apply stucco, working at the On Top of the World development and on the beaches. His employers considered him valuable enough to send him to Texas for a construction project.

That skill and cooking aren't so far apart, Davis said.

"With stucco, you've got to put those rocks and those bricks in certain places," he said. "They've got to fit. And they have to fit in the perfect spot. To pull out a perfect rib, you have to set that fire just right and be patient enough to turn that rib but one time. Not flip it 10 and 15 times.

"Stucco you don't rush. Barbecue you don't rush."

In 2001, Mr. Crawford bought an old ice cream shop on Skinner Boulevard in Dunedin and turned it into Eli's Bar-B-Que, to be open two days a week.

"He said, 'I like Friday and Saturday, and that's the bottom line,' " Davis said. It wasn't his only unusual business practice.

"You get some homeless guys that come down the trail: 'Hey, I haven't eaten in days,' " Davis said. "He wouldn't flinch. He'd say, 'Go to the window and tell them what you want.' He was like a pastor over his sheep."

Mr. Crawford had planned to leave the business to one of his three sons, but all were already happily employed or did not enjoy cooking. Davis' biological father had reconciled with him before his death in 2001. But he still felt the wounds of an unfulfilled relationship. He began working with Mr. Crawford in 2004.

"It's funny, because God does things for a reason," he said. "And I felt my dad came back in Pop to build a relationship with me."

As the ribs, chicken and sausage sizzled on the grill along with foil-wrapped pork butts a tier higher, Davis had not moved in 12 minutes. Then he eased off his stool and took a rack of ribs off the grill. He squirted it with a brownish sauce which he would only describe as "magic," sprinkled rust-colored spice on it and wrapped it in foil.

Around 11 a.m., a seasonal visitor wandered past George, who was still waiting, and asked Davis if the store was open. Others trickled into the parking lot or walked to the storefront, where they read condolence messages and asked if the store was closed.

"I apologize," Davis told each customer. "My dad passed away."

The restaurant will reopen next weekend.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

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