As a child, when Jeff Carver would go to visit his father’s family in Metropolis, Ill., the most memorable thing to him was the barbecue.
“I remember going to my great-grandmother’s house and walking blocks away with my family to some old guy in a garage, shredding up barbecue, (wrapping) it in a piece of foil and giving you your barbecue sauce in a baby food jar,” Carver says. “There were a lot of places that sold pulled pork by the pound, so that was kind of intriguing as a kid; the simplicity of it, how good it was.”
In the fall of 1999, he took those memories and created a business.
To celebrate 20 years of smoky goodness, Carver’s is holding an open house on Saturday, Oct. 26, complete with food and live entertainment.
Over the years, the restaurant has seen changes, including the addition of a dining area.
The space is not the only change. Originally selling pulled pork by the pound, kabobs, and a limited selection of sides, Carver’s now boasts a full menu with fresh salads, stuffed potatoes, nachos, and wings.
The wings have been a particularly big hit. The restaurant began serving them during the Super Bowl a few years ago, and now it sells about 50 pounds of wings each week.
“We’ve won best barbecue in Madison County for a couple years; I’d love to see us win best wings someday, too,” Carver says.
Thinking about the future, he also plans to build an outdoor dining patio and begin serving beer and wine within the next year.
“It’s been a blur,” he says. “It grew really fast, and it continues to grow. Through it all, I raised my family, sent my kids to college (he also supports his son’s professional racing career).
“It’s three different businesses now, dine-in, carry-out, and catering.”
The business owner pauses, shakes his head and smiles.
“It’s been such a blur, sometimes I almost forget how it all began.”
While most people who know the Carver family have heard about Jeff’s childhood trips to Metropolis, many people don’t realize that he started out by selling not pulled pork, but Piasa Bird Meat On A Stick.
“My mother-in-law was the first female Rotarian in Alton,” he says. “They had a fundraiser at the Alton Expo, and the Rotary Club would do a kabob stand called Piasa Bird Meat on a Stick. It was pork and a lot of teriyaki and a lot of salt. (My mother-in-law’s) dry rub is what I continue to use to this day.”
Not only does he use his mother-in-law’s dry rub, but Carver’s sauce is one created by his mother — and she still comes in for a couple of hours each week to make it fresh in house.
Family is the center of the business, as is obvious shortly after arriving.
“(My kids) Jeffrey and Annmarie were here from day one,” Carver says. “When we started remodeling, they’re the ones who put the sledgehammer through the wall right there.”
Daughter Annmarie also designed the logo. Son Jeffrey Jr. is a professional flat track racer known by fans as The Wizard. His interest in racing as a child was a big factor in the decision to open Carver’s.
“He started costing me a lot of money,” Carver says. “He was very good at a young age, and boy, he took off. I was buying motorcycles every year, way beyond our budget. So I started doing outdoor events to supplement my income so I could buy motorcycle stuff. I had a decent job. I was catering on the side, doing carnivals, doing picnics, just trying to raise a young family and go racing. This was originally just extra money.”
The father still takes the smoker to the tracks when he goes to watch his son race.
“I’ve been giving these kids at the race track free barbecue since they were 6, 7 years old, and now they’re all in their late 20s, professionals, and I’m still feeding them — but I’m selling barbecue at the races.”
Now, Carver’s BBQ is a household name in the racing world. Fans from across the country go out of their way to visit the restaurant while traveling.
During a typical morning preparing for the day, Carver and his mother, Betty Carver-Healey, his sister, Robin Carver, and Crystal Roper can all be found pulling hundreds of pounds of pork shoulder by hand.
Carver’s servers, Joy Wooldridge (12 years) and Fawn Kitsmiller (8 years) greet everyone with a smile, joking easily with the regulars.
When it comes to advice for young people wanting to start their own business, Carver is able to speak from experience.
“I’m doing this because it’s my passion,” he says. “I would say if a young person, if it’s their passion, they should go at it very carefully. I would recommend that they research, research, research.
“It’s not glamorous, and you don’t get a lot of free time. It’s a lot of commitment, but it’s very rewarding. I believe in the American dream as an entrepreneur. I feel like I’m living it.”
Carver’s BBQ at 2716 Grovelin St. in Godfrey is open from 11 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information and to keep up to date on open house preparations, call (618) 467-9999 or visit the Facebook page.