The BBQ Joint is Oak Harbor family’s labor of love

By DAN RICHMAN

drichman@whidbeynewsgroup.com

You don’t have to leave Washington state to get a taste of genuine Texas BBQ, say native Texans Tim and Sonna Ryan, co-owners of Oak Harbor’s The BBQ Joint.

The nine-year-old restaurant offers six types of meat, all massaged with home-made rubs and then smoked over hickory wood.

“Barbecue was a staple we ate once a week,” Tim Ryan said during a recent interview. Though not a competitive barbecue chef, “I’ve been cooking it for 10 years.”

“I’ve got it right. It tastes good!”

The BBQ Joint serves beef brisket, mild kielbasa and spicy andouille sausage, pork shoulder for pulled pork, half-chickens and baby back ribs. The brisket and pork are cooked for 15 hours, overnight, at very low temperatures. The ribs and chicken — cooked twice a day, once for lunch and once for dinner, are smoked for 3.5 hours.

The meat is cooked and served traditionally — dry, with sauce on the side. And “we don’t do hamburgers and hot dogs,” Ryan said. “We do strictly BBQ, full-time.”

The beef is choice or better grass-fed meat from the Northwest, Ryan said. The sausage is made in Oregon, and the chicken also hails from the Northwest. Nothing is frozen or prepared.

“I don’t even own a freezer or a fryer,” he said.

The restaurant makes its own salad dressings from scratch and makes its own baked beans, cole slaw, macaroni salad and potato salad. This summer it’s serving collard greens from Bell’s Farm in Oak Harbor.

The food isn’t the only distinctive feature about The BBQ Joint. Several years ago, a woman who wishes to remain anonymous, came into the restaurant and donated $500 in memory of her late husband, a retired Navy chief, to buy meals for randomly chosen servicemen and women who come in. As word of the “Mystery-Lady Fund” spread, other customers began contributing to the pot.

The woman still comes by every couple of months to make sure the fund is topped up.

“It’s been up to $900 at times,” Ryan said. “You can feed a lot of people with that.”

About half the restaurant’s business comes from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. About 80 percent of the remainder “we know to say ‘hi’ to,” he said. “It’s a repeat business, with some newcomers every week.”

The place serves about 200 customers per day in the summer and gets a lot of catering business through late September, he said. After daylight savings time starts, business slows and the restaurant closes one hour earlier.

He declined to reveal revenues but said the business, which employs 12 full-time-equivalent workers, has been profitable since its inception.

As to competition, there really isn’t any, Ryan said. “We were attracted to the Northwest because there weren’t a lot of barbecue places at the time.” That’s changed — Famous Dave’s and Dickey’s have come to the Seattle area. And Petosa BBQ recently opened in Freeland.

The Ryans started their restaurant when they got bored with early retirement from sales and marketing at AT&T, Tim said. He’s from Fort Worth; she’s from Austin. They were living in Tulsa but had visited the Northwest and wanted to open a restaurant.

“I played golf every day for four years and couldn’t get any better,” he said. “I decided I was watching too much Oprah and reclining too much. This was something I felt I knew how to do.”

“It’s very simple. And we both love people.”

Serving customers is one of their pleasures, he said. “That’s the best part about this job.”

Neither of them is near retiring, but that’s OK, he said, because “it’s fun.”

Their daughter, Courtney Harper, works at the restaurant, as do her children, 17-year-old boy-girl twins.

“I don’t think she’s interested in taking over, but the kids love it here. If anyone were to take over it would be them.”