So you want to BBQ? Lakes area locals share their tips

Barbecue has taken on a life of its own as pitmasters can now control everything from temperature to how long and when the cook starts, though everyone has their own perfect way of cooking.

Barbecuing a brisket
Robert Hannahs, owner of Big Bob's Backyard BBQ, preparing and barbecuing a brisket Monday, June 20, 2022, at his house.
Contributed / Cherri Hannahs

BRAINERD — For thousands of years, humans have cooked meat over a fire, and over time, they adopted advanced technology to achieve the perfect meal.

Whether it be on a gas grill or an offset stick-burning barbecue, there is one consensus: everyone has their own way of cooking.

Their own way of cooking is exactly what the owner of The Smokestack BBQ Supply Store in Brainerd and Alexandria, Cory Jay, said he wants out of his customers.

“When COVID started everybody was forced to stay home more, which I think became a great thing,” Jay said. “You got to get out and enjoy all your time with family and friends. And that's what it's all about for us. We say we create backyard legends. We want everybody to be a legend in their own backyard. You don't have to be the best cook, but you can be the best cook in your home.”

Opening up two stores in 2021, Cory Jay said his ultimate goal was to create a store with space used as a gathering place for people to come and spend time with family, spend time with friends and try new things.


Spending time with fellow pitmasters discussing cooking techniques — both the ones that went well as well as the ones no cook would ever put their name behind — is part of the draw of barbecuing, said Robert Hannahs, owner of Big Bob's Backyard BBQ, a barbecue catering service.

“Don't be afraid to fail,” Hannahs said. “Because I know when I first started out, there was stuff that I did that did not turn out. It's learning by just doing; it’s an experience.”

Hannahs started barbecuing in 2006 after he moved into a new home and met his neighbor Mike Jay, Cory Jay’s father. Mike Jay and Hannahs became friends and the two started to barbecue together. Hannahs love of barbecuing even took him to competitions.

“Mike Jay taught me a lot. … I always call him my coach, even to this day,” Hannahs said.

Now 16 years later, Hannahs said he is no longer competing because of family and the time required to travel for competitions, but he continues to barbecue for his own business. Hannahs said he has embraced the new technology offered by pellet cookers, but he still maintains the same work ethic as he had when cooking on a stick burner.

“If you're advancing from a stick burner to a pellet grill then you kind of think it's like, set it and forget it,” Hannahs said. “I always recommend that you check your machine.”

Just because one can does not mean one should, as Hannahs found out while cooking a brisket Monday morning. His power went out about 12:45 a.m. and if he had relied on everything working right, he would not have been able to react quickly and start his generator to keep the cooking going. Pellet grill require power to operate.

Picture of Barbecues
Some of the barbecues at Brainerd Ace Hardware Monday, June 20, 2022.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

“Because it's a machine, machines can fail,” Hannahs said. “I always get up once an hour, check that it's holding the temp and, you know, that it's running properly. And of course, then I spray my brisket once an hour with some apple juice.”


Along with not being afraid to fail, Hannahs said one of the biggest mistakes new barbecuers make is setting the time the meat will be ready and not relying on the meat to let one know when it's done.

“The second biggest thing that I tell anybody getting into barbecue is, give the meat the time it deserves,“ Hannah said. “Personally when I go into a cook I know that I got this time set aside for this cook.”

Brainerd Ace Hardware Assistant Manager Pam Vogt said when starting out, she recommends a full-size charcoal grill, with a grilling area that offers enough space to be able to both grill and cook slow and low by placing the meat off to one side of the grill and managing the fire on the opposite side.

For those looking to grill on a tighter time window, gas and pellet grills fire up and reach cooking temperatures quicker than their charcoal or stick cousins.

Though they are available with fewer bells and whistles, the advancements in the industry are making cooking on pellet grills more consistent and convenient, sending alerts on low fuel or temp to your phone, Vogt said.

Both Cory Jay and Vogt recommend attending each of the company’s cookouts, where different spices, sauces and proteins are available for sampling.

“There's a lot of new seasonings and sauces that are coming out every day,” Cory Jay said. “The different techniques are fun. We've got all kinds of different accessories that you can try different methods of cooking. There's new stuff every single day.”

Cooking is just one part of the process. There still needs to be something that goes on the barbecue and Ben Von Bank, owner of Von Hanson Meats of Baxter has the grillers and barbecuers of the area covered.


Steaks, kebabs and marinated chicken are some of his most popular meats this year, though he usually has a good supply of minimally processed meats for any barbecuer.

“It's always good to call ahead just to make sure we have what people want,” Von Bank said. “We hate when we don't have what people want. It's just that the summer months get very busy at times. And sometimes someone walks in and buys the whole case.”

Hannahs said don't be afraid to experiment with different flavors, different rubs and if something isn't quite working, step outside the box a little bit and try something different.

“Listen to the old-timers,” Hannahs said. “Listen to the people that have been cooking. They may not tell you — their secrets are everything. But they're going to tell you enough because it's in the barbecue family, as you probably well know. We love to talk to each other about barbecue and about the process and just listen and take in that information because you can learn so much from people who've been doing it quite a while.”

The Smokestack BBQ Supply Store in Brainerd has sampling every Saturday between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. along with a sample table for sauces and rubs always available in the store.

Brainerd Ace Hardware’s next sampling cookout day is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 16.

Tim Speier joined the Brainerd Dispatch in October 2021, covering Public Safety.
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