By around 4 p.m. on a recent weekday afternoon, Chhqnuon Ponn may have been dozing slightly while sitting upright at the edge of the pits, arms folded across his chest as NPR played in the background. Ponn, a Cambodian immigrant who has worked at Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro since 1984, oversees more barbecue pits than probably everyone else in the three Triad cities combined.
This summer, Craver Stamey — a college student at UNC-Wilmington and the first of his generation to work in the hot and smoky pits — asked to work alongside him.
It’s a job with its share of waiting, but before long Ponn was up and clearing out the burned hardwood coals from short but wide slots underneath the mouth of the ovens.
Craver said he appreciates the downtime because it allows him to get to know Ponn and the other pit workers. There is no manual for how to be a true barbecue chef, no thermometer in the pits at Stamey’s letting him know when the meat is ready. He would ask those sorts of questions when the summer started, and said this coworkers would just look at him and say something like, “When it’s ready.”
Since then he’s learned how to wield the two-pronged forks that Ponn makes himself; the long, skewer-like tools and the shovels needed for the hickory coals aren’t easy to come by.
Now Craver can stab the pork shoulder in the right place to hook the bone, making it easier to hoist the heavy slab of browned meat into a metal cart. With a wet washcloth wrapped around his left hand and another resting on the front of the oven to protect his forearm, Craver pierces a pork shoulder with the long fork, and a crisp crackling sound lets him know the meat is ready.
There are 10 pits in the building behind Stamey’s longstanding location across from the Greensboro Coliseum. Housing it separately significantly reduces the risk of a fire, said Chip Stamey, who is the company owner and Craver’s father, even though they are the only true ’cue restaurant here to split the restaurant from the pits. Four or five of the oven pits are in use on an average day, Craver said, each able to hold about 21 pork shoulders.
One early afternoon last week, Craver, Ponn and a coworker named Johnny waited for a round of barbecue to finish cooking. They’d been at it since around 3 a.m. — a typical day — and at around 2 p.m., Ponn took his leave.
His remaining workers removed long sheets of tin foil covering the pork, designed to trap heat and protect the meat from any buildup in the chimneys — Mr. Barbecue uses face-down metal pans while Little Richard’s employs built-in metal doors. Then Craver and Johnny checked each shoulder, both leaving a few above the smoldering coals to finish cooking. The first batch off the fire would go to the restaurant’s Battleground location, while the second crop would make the trek across the parking lot.
Stamey’s opened in Greensboro on an adjacent lot in 1953 across from what was then the city’s fairgrounds, Chip Stamey said, but the restaurant traces its history back to 1930.
[pullquote] We just hope that people realize we’re just trying to do one thing very well. We don’t want to complicate it.’ — Chip Stamey [/pullquote] C. Warner Stamey, Chip’s grandfather, founded the restaurant in his native Shelby that year after working closely under one of the progenitors of Lexington-style barbecue. Jess Swicegood was one of two men selling barbecue out of a tent across from the city’s courthouse, and Stamey would later return to Lexington and buy his mentor’s business.
What started at the original Greensboro location grew from a drive-in and two pits into a restaurant pushing into its fourth generation. Chip’s 15-year-old daughter works at the Battleground location and his oldest son has worked for the business too, though not in the pits like Craver.
Chip hasn’t always been on the business side of things. He worked several jobs at the family restaurant and also spent several professional years away from the company. But barbecue has always been a big part of his life, even when he was in college at Wake Forest University, where he’d head over to Little Richard’s out of convenience rather than driving back to Greensboro.