Customers at the Southport Smoke House are treated as if they have been invited to have a home-cooked meal.
“It is part of our core values and that is what we strive to do,” said general manager Eli Haws.
Open since April 2014, the restaurant has been introducing guests to owner Troy Knight’s home state of Texas brand of barbecue: beef brisket.
“Troy is originally from Texas where they are big on brisket, so when he moved here and couldn’t get good brisket anywhere, he spent a lot of time making brisket in his backyard, so he decided to open a restaurant,” Haws said.
Knight’s Texas-style barbecue is a dry-rubbed, wood-smoked beef brisket. For those who are loyal to the North Carolina-style barbecue, pulled pork is offered, as well as chicken, ribs and sausage.
“In North Carolina, barbecue is mostly thought of as the vinegar-based kind, but we don’t do that. This way, with all the different sauces, customers get to hook it up the way they like it,” Haws said. “Sauce it up.”
The Carolina style of barbecue is an acquired taste, according to Knight, but he said he is more open to it now, 20 years after first moving here, and is happy to share his Texas dry rub.
“Smoke and meat is what it is all about,” Knight said.
To accommodate different tastes and preferences, seven homemade sauces are available for customers to choose from to make their own.
Now having expanded to a second location in Leland in 2020, Knight said that his customers are much more open to his dry rub brisket now than when the Southport Smoke House first opened.
“At first pork was by far the biggest seller. Now at both locations, brisket is our biggest seller. Customers are hooked on it,” Knight said.
Brisket, pork, ribs, sausage and chicken can be purchased by the pound, while family, value meals and plates are all options. Side items, kids meals and desserts are available, too.
In addition to being a restaurant owner, Knight is a full-time pastor of Generations Church in Southport. He is committed to providing an enjoyable experience for his customers. He said all of what he does is part of who he is as a person.
“I don’t compartmentalize my life. I am me all the time. But I am not preaching Jesus in the Smoke House or standing up in the church and saying, ‘I hope you enjoyed the sermon, let’s go eat barbecue,’” Knight joked.
“We take pride in all of our meats, but we really take pride in our brisket,” Haws said.
All of the meats are dry-rubbed and wood-smoked creating an aroma that beckons customers as soon as they exit their cars.
“As soon as you walk through the door, actually, as soon as you pull into the parking lot, the smell hits you in the face,” Haws said. “Customers say how they would love it if we could bottle that smell up and sell it.”
The off-season has proven to provide the Smoke House with a consistent customer base of locals with a solid lunch crowd of city workers and families for dinner.
“The summer is when people really start rolling in, especially tourists and big families,” Haws said.
The growth of Southport and its popularity as a tourist destination has expanded the restaurant’s customer base and popularity.
“Each year we grow with Southport. Southport gets busier and busier, and we grow in sales and customers,” Haws said.
While increased volume is a sign of the town and business’s growth, Haws explained that staffing can sometimes be a challenge.
“It is hard to keep up with the staff. Each year is different and busier, but we have a great crew,” Haws said. “All of our employees work really hard to make it all happen.”
Making it happen means reaching more people in more places – like the new Leland location.
“We are working to continue to grow and maybe find a third location,” Haws said.
After all, the business has customers who drive three hours for the day just to get their barbecue, according to Haws.
“We have tourists who say it is the first place they have to come when they are in town,” he said. “We love to hear that. We try our best to treat customers like guests in our home.”
As empty-nesters with a 22-year-old son living on his own and a 19-year-old daughter in college, Knight and his wife, Tabitha, are happy that their Smoke House restaurants provide a “cool place for kids to work.” Troy Knight credits his managers with making the restaurants successful.
He relies on his staff to continue their mission of providing the best service and product.
“I couldn’t do it without our managers and our team that I can depend on,” he said.
Each month, the Knights and the restaurant managers host a “test kitchen” to try out new products and different ways of making dishes.
“We have a good time always trying to improve on something we do,” Troy Knight said. “Having a taste test each month helps with that.”
Having introduced the Southport and Leland areas to Texas-style beef brisket, Troy Knight is thankful that he is able to share his smokey barbecue with customers.
“Find a need and meet it,” he said, “and you’ll never be short of customers.”