STUBBY’S BAR B QUE – KEEPING THE FIRES BURNING
SIX DECADE-OLD TRADITION SHOWS NO SIGNS OF SLOWING
As the lunchtime queue shuffles by the serving window at Stubby’s Bar B Que Restaurant, owner Chris Dunkel vibrates with an enthusiasm uncommon to proprietor-patron relations.
The fluency of his patter makes it difficult to discern if he’s plating ribs or a Pot-O-Beans order for a regular or a first timer, but there’s no uncertainty about a commitment that’s been manifest since childhood.
Soon after his family purchased what founder Richard “Stubby” Stubblefield had already cultivated into a brand of local renown, Dunkel can recall “being this fat little kid, running around busing tables” in the original 1000 Park Ave. location. It moved to 3024 Central Ave. in the late 1970s.
The scene’s about the only thing that’s changed in the narrative Stubblefield first scripted after his fire pit began imparting the smoky flavor that’s kept a local and far-flung following beating a steady path to Stubby’s since 1952. It’s a script Dunkel’s stayed loyal to, rolling it out seven days a week, 362 days a year. The show only breaks for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
“You have that concept that was tried and true when my family took it over in the 70s, if you stay true to the inception, the items people associate you with from day one, you don’t start mixing and changing up,” said Dunkel, part of an ownership group that includes his mother, Susan Whittaker, and sister, Robin January. “That’s when you start losing the customer base and the people who have been with you for generations.”
With such deference to tradition, subtle changes can seem dramatic.
“The biggest change we’ve had to endure was going to glass bottles, which we used to serve everything in, to fountain drinks,” he said. “The Coke company came to me and said there’s no longer any glass bottles. That was probably the biggest change for us. A sad day in the history of Stubby’s.”
The oak-and-hickory-fueled fire pit cast in the role of kitchen workhorse continues to drive the story, which Dunkel’s embellished with the wood pile that’s adjacent to the entrance. Its pride of place owes less to ornamentation and more to what he sees as part and parcel of the trade.
“If you walk up to a barbecue restaurant and can’t find their source of wood, you need to be a little leery,” he said. “It shouldn’t be hidden, it should be right out front.”
The pit slow cooks ribs, pork, beef, ham and chicken for 12 to 14 hours and smokes Stubby’s signature potato-and-bean sides along with the occasional Alaskan king crab leg.
Dunkel’s stewardship of the legacy entailed on him by Stubblefield has cemented Stubby’s as a Hot Springs establishment, fixing it in the pantheon he said it occupies alongside foil and friendly rival McClard’s Bar-B-Q.
“Two restaurants have stood the test of time,” Dunkel said. “As long as you’re putting your heart and soul into it and you’re here everyday and you believe what you’re doing. That’s the catalyst that keeps the engine going.”
The commitment extends to good works in the community, which Stubby’s has enhanced with its support for organizations ranging from Garland County Habitat for Humanity, veterans organizations and Safe Haven Shelter for Women and Children.
“There’s always groups out there in need of help,” Dunkel said.
ASK THE OWNER…
Chris Dunkel, owner and pitmaster for Stubbys BBQ
Chris, what inspired you to own a restaurant? I grew up in it.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten? Fresh seafood at McCormick and Schmick’s in Vancouver.
What’s the best cooking advice you’ve ever received? Don’t get in a rush and start with quality ingredients.
What’s your favorite ingredient(s)?Love and patience.
What’s your favorite restaurant?Restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. Just because of the freshness of the seafood.
What’s something few people know about you?I’m a second-year Tee-ball coach, and it’s humbling.
What’s your favorite thing about Hot Springs?The people.