GTPulse: Steve’s Smokin’ BBQ Sticks Around Town

What would you do for a bikini-clad beauty on horseback? For Steve Randell, he traveled across the country.

“I was 16. I’ve always been mechanically inclined. I was taking apart an engine and rebuilding it. So, I’m in my garage with a friend, got the motor tore apart in there, it was a hot and sunny day and these two girls came up on their horses bareback and in bikinis. That was Lori. She said ‘Hey guys want to go swimming?’ …yeah I think so. That’s how we met.”

That girl is Lori Randell. She married Steve and is a big reason they opened up Steve’s Smokin’ BBQ, a wooden wagon serving up smoked bbq on Barlow Street in Traverse City.

Located away from the beaten path of downtown, Steve’s Smokin ‘BBQ isn’t always at the forefront of people’s minds when they’re hankering for local bbq but that’s soon to change. Steve, his wife Lori, and their son Logan operate Steve’s as a concession and usually don’t spend a full year in Traverse City. In a normal, pandemic-less year, Steve and Lori would be getting ready to trek across the country to set up shop at a 6-week Halloween festival in Arizona where they’d serve over 30,000 people. This year they’re sticking around town to serve their backyard bbq that’ll charm the haughtiest of connoisseurs. 

“This year all of our Michigan shows are gone, and we lost three of our big shows in Arizona. We’ve been doing a haunted attraction in Arizona for 17, 18 years.”

That’s most of their bbq career, considering they’ve been in business since 2001. This year will be the first that they don’t go to Arizona to work. They have fond memories of the Grand Canyon State, it was the first place they debuted Steve’s Smokin’ BBQ.

Despite inspiring rave reviews and happy customers, they didn’t get into the business for the love of bbq. They got into it so the two of them could spend some more time together.

“Lori was a manager at Sears and I was working in the oil field, most of my work was downstate but we lived here. So we were apart a lot and when we did get together we still didn’t have time. When I was off she wasn’t off. I missed hanging out with her and we were looking for something we could do together.”

The hours spent away from home were waring on Steve when his brother-in-law asked for help working a festival with his Gibby’s stand.

“One year at Cherry Festival I had the week off and Bruce needed some help running one of his concessions. So I said, ‘I’ll do it for you.’ I helped him a lot of time off and on, I knew what was going on and how to fry potatoes and all that stuff. So I decided to be the manager for it and I ran it for the week and I saw the possibility for income in that industry.”

It was the catalyst to Steve and Lori hunting down a concession stand of their own. It had to be good and it had to be unique. A wooden wagon with a smoker was for sale in Indiana and fit the bill.

“We went down and visited a guy. He had one that was in an industrial park and sampled some of the food he was smoking. Guy’s name was Billy Penny, he was a Texan. ”

He sold Steve the wagon and left him with simple, verbal instructions on how to smoke meats. With only Bill Penny’s directions in his head and a tank full of gas, Steve and Lori drove from Michigan to Arizona with their new concession wagon.

“So Lori got on these articles where you could find out how many people went to which fair and she just started calling them. The reason we started in Arizona is because it was approaching wintertime here and it was nice and sunny out there. We had never been there. We had nothing to tow the wagon. I had never smoked anything in my life.”

A used motorhome purchase got them and the bbq wagon to Arizona where they were baptized by fire in their first days of smoking and selling bbq, but it was a success. They figured out where to find meat without a supplier, and chopped wood in the desert.

They’ve become regular fixtures throughout many Arizona and Michigan attractions and its because of the food. Smoked pork, brisket, turkey legs and macaroni and cheese calls to past customers in their dreams, not to mention the sauce.

“We make our own bbq sauce. Our cherry, which is a sweet sauce, we make a jalapeno pineapple which is spicy, and then we just have a traditional. We do our own rib rub too. Yes it is a secret!” Lori said.

Their current Traverse Heights location is located on Baldwin near the corner of Barlow by Deerings, but they’re on the hunt for a local storefront that will offer them more stability and less travel time. COVID-19 has closed down most of their scheduled events for the rest of the year, and they also feel that it’s time to spend more time in their hometown with their grandchildren. The wagon is located behind the family home and has a couple of rows of tent-covered picnic tables for guests to eat. While Steve and I were talking, a man in a button-down thanked Steve for saving him from another fast-food lunch. His bbq earns him a lot of love around here, but he’s currently looking for a change of scenery.

“We’re looking for a store. We’ve talked about settling down a little more and doing less on the road. There’s a difference in atmosphere between getting bbq from a restaurant and getting one from some wagon.”

That wagon hasn’t done wrong by the Randell’s. They may be looking to dig their roots deeper into home with a storefront, but the wagon will still be at a handful of fairs in Michigan and down south. As far as its initial purpose of giving Steve and Lori a little more time together? 

“It’s not easy. There are definitely bad times, there’s a lot of time on the road. But, we’ve had a lot of fun, seen a lot of things, met a lot of people. It’s all been worth it.”

And served up some darn delicious bbq along the way. Say hi to the Randells at Steve’s Smokin BBQ Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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Categories: GTPulse