Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Moorhead native Jacey Henrichs had cooking in the back of his mind when he and his family returned to Moorhead eight years ago, but it took while for the right recipe to come together. Now, after two years of tantalizing visitors to the Center Mall with the scent of perfectly roasted meats, his family crew is on the verge of expanding Jay’s Smokin’ BBQ across the river, while they continue to do a booming business from their original location.
“I grew up in the restaurant business,” Jay explains. He and his siblings helped out grandfather Tom Tvedt as kids at his iconic Tom’s Pizza until Tom closed it in 1984 to attend Rhema Bible Training College in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
Jay’s parents moved their family to Arizona, but eventuallyjoined Tom to Broken Arrow. “Mom got a job in insurance in downtown Tulsa, and when I graduated from high school, she brought me in,” Jay explains. When he and his wife Rochelle moved to Florida, he continued with RAI Resources, an international firm providing workers’ compensation-related services. “I was in data processing,” he says. “A guy asked me, ‘Want to do computers?’ Sure! And so I did that for 30-some years.”
He and Rochelle, an Arkansas native whose father also attended the Oklahoma college, raised their son Devyn and daughter Brianna in Lake Wales, Florida. But years later, when Jay flew back to Moorhead for a relative’s funeral nearly 10 years ago, he felt the irresistible pull of home.
“Frankly, I just was homesick,” he says now.
Daughter Brianna tells how she knew it was coming: “I was given a ticket to fly here to visit Grandma as a graduation present.” She laughs. “When I got back to Florida, there was a ‘for sale’ sign in front of our house.”
The insurance connection held during their early years back home. Jay continued to do computer work for a crop insurance company. “But when they wanted me to move to Ramsey, Minnesota, I said ‘nope,’” he reports. The stage was set to go public with the barbecue skills he’d been honing at home on a small smoker, a long-ago gift from Rochelle: “There was no one doing anything like that in Moorhead, so I decided to try.”
With Rochelle and Brianna at his side, Jay rented a long-empty space on the main court of the mall. Jay’s Smokin’ BBQ was a hit from the day it opened in 2018. Workers at City Hall and visitors to the mall couldn’t – still can’t – resist the savory scent of applewood and mesquite chips wafting down the halls, along with meltingly tender pulled pork, beef brisket, smoked chicken and – on “Fribsday” – the best barbecue ribs in the Red River Valley.
“Within the first week, we knew this was going to work. We’ve never looked back,” he reports. “We were busy, busy, busy from the beginning, and it has stayed constant.”
That success led the family to ready a second location that’s expected to open in November. They’re remodeling the former Mom’s Kitchen on Main Avenue in Fargo. Though most of the meat-cooking will eventually move to the new, larger kitchen, Brianna will continue to manage the original store here. All pitch in, too, on off-site catering jobs. They’ve been serving their specialties for Saturday dinners at the Moorhead American Legion since August, and are providing the savory side for Swing Barrel Brewing Company’s Oktoberfest this weekend.
They’ve also catered weddings far and wide, including three in Walhalla, North Dakota, as well as El Zagal Shrine, Rustic Oaks, Bonanzaville and Vintage Gardens in Barnesville. “Don’t forget, we did one in somebody’s garage,” Brianna adds. The great majority of their business, though, is in take-out from the mall.
Yes, what might have seemed a shortcoming – no tables where diners can be served – turned out to be basically brilliant in the days of COVID-19. While full-service restaurants struggled to reinvent themselves with carry-out meals, that’s been the central approach here since Day One. Business, Jay says, is evenly divided between the delivery services Uber Dining and Door Dash and personal pick-up by their customers, inside the mall or delivered in person to waiting cars at the curb.
After two years of slicing brisket, pulling pork and spooning up specialty sides like mac and cheese, cole slaw and potato salad, the three Henrichses still profess to love Jay’s barbecue. Brianna is partial to the smoked chicken. Rochelle’s favorite is brisket tacos. Perhaps surprising, Jay himself avoids red meat. “I go for pork on a bun or flatbread splashed with Carolina Gold sauce or Mango Habanero.” He features Sweet Baby Ray’s sauces. “We don’t have enough room to make our own here,” he says, “and really, why mess with perfection?”
Though the Center Mall draws little traffic these days, that hasn’t bothered Jay’s business. “We’re a destination,” Brianna says. “When you have a good reputation and good food, people go out of their way.”
Will their new Fargo restaurant change that?
“Never,” Jay asserts. “We’re never going to leave Moorhead. It’s our home. Our customers are like our family. They’ve supported us from the very beginning.”
He adds that they’re sticking to the recipes their customers love, the same combination of spices, heat and time he worked out feeding his own family.
“We believe in keeping it simple. We’re not complicated people,” Jay explains with a grin. “When you offer a consistent product that tastes and smells this good, it keeps people coming back.”
Nancy Edmonds Hanson