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By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
In a darkened hallway in the back of Pokey’s BBQ in Gillette there’s a display case full of white plates with scribbled, barely legible signatures.
At first glance, they don’t look remarkable at all. They look kind of like something a child might make.
But on closer inspection, eyes begin to widen.
These signatures are all from famous people who’ve sampled the barbecue at this family-run smokehouse near the northwest corner of East Second Street and South Douglas Highway: ZZ Top, Willy Nelson, Kenny Rogers — dozens of A-listers, all of whom have tried some of Pokey’s delicious barbecue at some point in the restaurant’s 17-year history.
Too Many Plates
In fact, the display case holds only a fraction of plates that have been signed by famous diners over the years.
“We ran out of room,” Pokey’s owner Ric Schuyler told Cowboy State Daily. “I don’t know how it happens. It just happens that we get, you know, I’ve fed a lot of famous people, I guess you’d call them.”
ZZ Top’s meal was particularly memorable, Schuyler said, and ranks among his favorite memories.
“ZZ Top was all paleo,” Schuyler said. “These guys are all 70 years old. Old as shit, But they’re all paleo.”
The band decorated Schuyler a “really cool plate,” he said, adding, “And also they loved” the barbecue.
And Schuyler loved that they loved his barbecue the most of all.
Schuyler is like a kid in a candy store whenever he sees people really enjoying barbecue at his restaurant. It doesn’t matter whether they’re famous or just the next-door neighbor. His eyes light up and a grin spreads from ear to ear.
That grin happened again when Schuyler heard his restaurant was featured recently in a Food Network story highlighting the best barbecue joint in every state.
Pokey’s was the selection for Wyoming.
The Boys Who Go For Home Economics
Schuyler has always liked cooking, but there was a joke at the real start of it all.
“I grew up on a ranch,” he recalled. “You know, I mean, cooking was a thing. But the year I was a junior in high school — I’m from Lusk — and they said, ‘Hey, next year we’re gonna let boys take Home Ec.’”
Schuyler and his friends were excited about that.
“That’s where all the girls are,” Schuyler recalls his buddies saying. “Let’s go to that!”
Schuyler, it turned out, had a knack for all things kitchen.
“We went to Home Economics, lo and behold, as a joke,” Schuyler said. “And you know, it turns out to where I kind of liked it, the cooking part of it.”
Schuyler also had a great teacher, one who wasn’t afraid to let him try crazy things in the kitchen.
“I know that this woman had to go to Casper,” Schuyler said. “Because Lusk had a Safeway, but it didn’t have near the stuff I needed to cook some of these crazy dishes that I wanted her to help me cook.”
Cooking turned out to be a useful skill and not just for attracting girls, but keeping them,” Schuyler said.
Schuyler married his high school sweetheart. He doesn’t doubt the cooking skills he learned in home economics helped, as he plied her with filet mignon and homemade baked breads.
Schuyler’s wife has since died, but they were married 30 years.
Through the years while Schuyler was working in the energy sector, he’d call his old teacher, Mrs. B, and ask her to remind him just how he made this or that dish.
But what he really likes best is smoking things.
“I will smoke anything,” he says with a laugh.
Salmon, brisket, chicken, pheasant, alligator, kangaroo, python, ostrich — you name it, Schuyler has smoked it.
One day, he decided to take a few samples of his best smoked dishes to a Cabela’s tasting to see if he could get something of his into its catalogue.
“The gal told us, she says, ‘This is the best stuff we’ve ever eaten,’” Schuyler said. “‘We’ll put you in the Christmas catalog if you can be up and running by March.’”
While putting that together, Schuyler told his his wife they should just add in a barbecue restaurant, too.
“She said, ‘Oh my god, you’re crazy,’” Schuyler recalled.
But Schuyler really believed in his smoked meats, so he did it anyway.
His daughter Jenny Chatfield remembers the day well.
“He called me up and said, ‘I quit the mine,’” she recalled. “‘Don’t tell your mom. I’m going to open a barbecue restaurant.’”
Chatfield told him, “You’re dead meat, man.”
But Chatfield also was Schuyler’s little “mini-me,” so when it came time to help with the restaurant, she always was there.
The first task? Name the joint.
Lots of names were thrown out. A long list of likely suspects was made. Schuyler wasn’t sure about any of them.
As he talked with his daughter about a name, Schuyler recalled the story of how Wendy’s was named.
“He named that after his daughter, you know?” Schuyler said.
Jenny’s nickname as a child was Pokey.
“She was last at everything,” Schuyler said, laughing. “So, then she popped up and says, ‘Well dad, name it Pokey’s.’”
“I’m your favorite kid,” Chatfield chimed in, beaming as her dad tells a story he’s obviously told many times. “You might as well name it after me.”
“So that’s what happened,” Schuyler said with a big grin to match his daughter’s.
Chatfield has since learned the ins and outs of everything Pokey’s.
“I’ve taught her everything that I possibly can,” Schuyler said. “Plus, she’s learned on her own – the hard way, too – and we make this thing work together.”
That includes developing signature cocktails for the restaurant, among them a delicious blackberry-juniper Moscow mule made from ingredients she forages herself during the summer.
Juniper, chokecherry, blackberries — Chatfield is always seeking unusual ingredients to create one-of-a-kind drinks that complement her father’s barbecue.
“I pre-make the syrups in big batches,” she said.
That way, her specialty drinks aren’t time-consuming for bartenders to make.
Give A Little More
But as it happened, Schuyler’s wife had been right. Opening a restaurant alongside a catalogue business was indeed a crazy idea.
Running a restaurant, it turns out, takes a lot more than just knowing how to smoke delicious food.
The hard knocks came one after another in the beginning.
“This thing kicked my ass every day,” Schuyler recalled.
The first lesson he learned was that restaurants and the catalogue businesses aren’t nearly as compatible as he’d thought.
“When we got it all said and done, the USDA inspectors came in and they wouldn’t recognize me because I was attached to a restaurant,” Schuyler said. “So, my smoker and everything has its own room. But they wouldn’t let me — I could sell to anybody in Wyoming, right? I could ship it anywhere in Wyoming.
“I can sell you one and you can walk across the street and ship it to your aunt in Rapid City, South Dakota. But I can’t ship it to your aunt in Rapid City.”
This was bad news, particularly as Schuyler’s restaurant wasn’t doing so hot when it began. It lost money every day — a lot of money — week after week after week.
“I’m not a restaurant guy, I’m an equipment operator,” Schuyler said. “I’ve been in the mining industry for 30 years.”
It was so bad, the loan officer asked him what he was doing.
“How much money do you want to lose?” Schuyler recalls him asking one day.
Schuyler didn’t hesitate. “Instantly, out of my mouth I said, ‘Well, I think a little more.’”
The answer might seem strange, but it was like turning a key in a lock for Schuyler. Failure wasn’t an option. He had to make his restaurant work.
“I think just something happens in the universe,” he said. “People get to that point and they may decide to shut her down. You know, I’ve lost too much. I can’t go on anymore. And the business closes.
“But if you’d hung on just another thread, you know, another day, would things have turned around? And that’s my full belief, absolutely. I think it just takes a little more pain.”
Originality Was Key
Schuyler had to learn along the way that he couldn’t do barbecue in Gillette the same way he’d seen it done in the south. He had to Wyomingize everything, from the dishes on the menu to the overall operation of the business.
While people in the south line up early to get their barbecue, and when it’s gone it’s gone, customers in Gillette expect something a bit different.
“They want ribs at 10 o’clock at night,” Schuyler said. “It’s just not a barbecue mecca. It’s not one of those areas where people are familiar with going to get your barbecue and you take it home or you eat it at a picnic table.”
Word of mouth, prayer, hanging on for another day, good food, originality — all of these finally came together for Pokey’s BBQ. One day, Schuyler looked up and there were people in the restaurant. A lot of them.
The Cabela’s catalogue thing never happened, but Pokey’s is happening, despite its location on the east side of Gillete, which Schuyler will acknowledge is not a bad location for restaurants, but it’s not ideal either.
“Everyone wants to turn south,” Schuyler said.
That makes it a longer drive for some to get there, but the one-of-a-kind smoked brisket, smoked chicken – and more recently, like smoked wagyu steak and burger sourced from a local rancher – have proven to be a good draw.
Along with good food, the interior has great ambience despite an unassuming exterior. There are stuffed wolves and boars heads, an array of interesting hunting knives and more — all things that clearly point to a story behind them.
A family eating there recently told Cowboy State Daily the restaurant is a go-to for families that want to celebrate an occasion or impress their guests.
That a person could also rub elbows with the occasional famous person who has wandered in to “find dad” at the restaurant after running into Schuyler’s daughter at the airport? Well, that’s just a nice little bonus.
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