There’s a myth baked into the lore about the Skylight Inn in Ayden and repeated for decades: In the late 1970s a National Geographic writer tasted its wood-smoked whole hog barbecue and declared it “The Bar-B-Q Capital of the World.”
The truth – as food historian Rien Fertel discovered – is that the National Geographic writer and photographer stumbled into the Skylight after finding their original destination closed. At the Skylight, owner Pete Jones welcomed them as if they had “reached the final destination of a pilgrimage,” the writer recalled. Jones told the men: ‘You’ve come to the right place. You don’t need to look any farther.’ He then showed them a T-shirt emblazoned with these words: Ayden, Bar-B-Q Capital of the World.
This was before the Skylight became a one-hour tourist detour off Interstate 95, before Jones finally had air conditioning installed, before he expanded the kitchen, before he added two dining rooms and before he built the audacious capitol dome on top of the building. At this point, the Skylight Inn was a small counter-service, wood-paneled restaurant with school-cafeteria flooring and about 10 tables. It sold chopped barbecue in a paper tray or as a sandwich with coleslaw, slab cornbread and soft drinks. No ice tea. No banana pudding.
And Ayden was nothing more than a town with a population of a few thousand people and two barbecue restaurants, owned by separate branches of the same family. As Fertel wrote in his forthcoming book, “The One True Barbecue,” the late Pete Jones, who didn’t go past the third grade, was a man “who knew how to sell barbecue and sell himself.”
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So when Pete Jones is your grandfather, you do what Sam Jones has done: Take whole hog ’cue where it has never gone before in North Carolina’s coastal plain.
Late last year, the 35-year-old, fourth-generation barbecue man opened Sam Jones Barbecue, a 5,500-square-foot modern barbecue mecca in Winterville, 7 miles south of Greenville.
Sam Jones Barbecue serves wood-fired, chopped whole hog barbecue, coleslaw and cornbread but also ribs, smoked turkey and house salads topped with your choice of smoked meat. It has a marble-topped bar with flat-screen televisions and North Carolina beer on tap. Its smokehouse is prominently out front. And most audaciously, the restaurant is 8 miles from the Skylight Inn, which is owned by his father, Bruce, and uncle, Jeff Jones.
It’s not as if more upscale barbecue restaurants don’t exist – look at the Pit in Raleigh and Durham or Ed Mitchell’s former ’Que in Durham or just about any barbecue restaurant in New York or other large cities. (Let’s be clear: it doesn’t take much to step up from the linoleum-floor, vinyl-seat charm of the old-school places.) It’s just that in this part of the world, east of I-95, Sam Jones Barbecue is the outlier. He’s changing the definition of what a whole-hog barbecue restaurant can be in the part of the world most identified by the tradition.
I believe he was destined to do this. It mirrors very much his grandfather’s story.
Food historian Rien Fertel
During a recent Monday lunch rush, Sam works the dining room – stopping to greet regulars and friends – much like his grandfather, Pete, used to hold court behind Skylight’s counter.
Given the Jones family history, Fertel is not surprised by the venture: “I believe he was destined to do this. It mirrors very much his grandfather’s story.”
He added: “It’s the 21st century version of Skylight.”
A shift in feelings
Sam Jones, 35, never thought his future lay in wood smoke, pork fat and chopped meat. In fact, he said, “I hated the barbecue business.” He wanted to be a firefighter. (Now he is Ayden’s volunteer fire chief.) His grandfather and father didn’t push Sam into the business; they wanted him to go to college.
“When I was young, I was a little bit embarrassed of Skylight,” Sam admitted.
His feelings took a 180-degree turn in two steps. The first 90-degree shift happened in 2004, when he was taking classes at Pitt Community College. He had to write a term paper, so he chose barbecue as the subject. After writing that paper, Sam said, “I saw it no longer as a job but as a way of life.”
It had been a way of life for the Joneses for more than 180 years. Family lore said Sam’s great-great-great grandfather, Skillet Dennis, sold barbecue out of the back of a covered wagon in Ayden in the 1830s. Pete Jones learned the trade from an uncle and opened Skylight in 1947.
After writing that college paper, Sam had to take a break from school to work in the restaurant; his grandfather had a heart attack and was too ill to work. While his father and uncle handled the rest of the business, Sam made the coleslaw and the cornbread and became the restaurant spokesman. Pete Jones died two years later and Sam never went back to school.
At this point, Sam said his knowledge of the outside food world was limited. He had represented his family in New York City when the James Beard Foundation honored Skylight with an America’s Classic Award in 2003. That was mainly because his grandfather, father and uncle had never heard of the James Beard awards and had no interest in going.
The second 90-degree turn in his perspective happened after John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a cultural nonprofit based at the University of Mississippi, asked to shoot a short film about Skylight. “When SFA called, they might as well have been AARP,” Sam said. “I didn’t see the benefit of that to our business.”
The documentary was shot and Edge invited Sam to a screening of the film at the 2009 Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, the annual barbecue gathering in New York City. There he met legendary pitmasters from all over the country; and to his surprise, some of them knew who he was and about his family.
A reputation to uphold
The next year, Edge invited Sam to the annual Charleston Food & Wine Festival for another screening and to cook a pig. Sam agreed but was nervous. “Nobody in my family had ever cooked a pig outside Ayden, N.C.,” Sam recalled. Rodney Scott, owner of Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, S.C., helped Sam cook the pig.
You aren’t just making a pork sandwich. You are putting a piece of North Carolina history on a bun.
The 16-minute film was screened, and afterward as Sam walked through the restaurant’s front door with the chopped barbecue, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
“It was weird. We cooked pigs every day to no applause,” Sam said.
He added: “Seeing some reward for what you do can change your perspective. You aren’t just making a pork sandwich. You are putting a piece of North Carolina history on a bun.”
Sam had not only become proud of his family’s history, he figured out his role in preserving its legacy. “I saw that I could be more effective for the business than being the guy who made coleslaw,” Sam said. “That doesn’t mean I’m saying that I’m more important than the guy who makes the coleslaw.”
Sam soon joined his fellow pitmasters traveling around the country to cook barbecue from Napa to New York. He become a member of the Fatback Collective, a group of chefs and restaurateurs who cook to raise money for causes they champion. “He went from that nervous guy to one of the most organized on the road,” said Scott, a collective member who noted that Sam’s specially designed pig cooker is the envy of the others.
Sam’s travels led him to decide to open his own restaurant. But he knew that he could not attempt to replicate Skylight, which is its own quirky restaurant and would always be a pilgrimage for hardcore barbecue fans. “I wouldn’t pave the parking lot at Skylight,” Sam said.
But Sam said he now had a better idea from traveling across the country and cooking alongside other chefs in other kitchens what could be done if you actually set out to build a restaurant – unlike what his grandfather did by fashioning a restaurant inside a pre-existing building. While initially resistant to the idea of naming the restaurant after himself, he realized it would be silly not to take advantage of his family’s name and reputation.
“I knew I couldn’t call this Skylight,” he said. “I thought if I called it something else I would be giving up conquered ground.”
His father, Bruce, said he admires his son’s initiative: “I’m really proud of the way he’s branched out.” But Bruce, a Baptist preacher, has only been to the restaurant once – for a family gathering on Valentine’s Day – because he doesn’t approve of its serving alcohol.
Nor is he worried about a second restaurant in the family opening up so close. Bum’s Restaurant, which is run by a cousin, is less than a mile from Skylight. Plus, Bruce said, customers come to Skylight when they don’t want to stand in line at Sam Jones Barbecue.
These days, Sam splits his time and energy. He still works as an employee at Skylight, helping his father and uncle with ordering and being Skylight’s face to the outside world. He also spends a lot of time at Sam Jones Barbecue, monitoring the lunch rush. On a recent Monday customer Billy Hales, 71, of Goldsboro, stopped him in the dining room.
“Are you the gentleman in Our State magazine?” asked Hales, referring to a recent story about Sam in the February issue.
Hales and his wife, Lynette, 63, are longtime fans of the Skylight Inn and now Sam Jones Barbecue. Hales said: “It’s the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten.”
His wife added: “It’s always consistent. That’s what keeps us coming back.”
It took the wider food world to make Sam appreciate that family legacy and what barbecue and his grandfather gave him: “I only have what I have and get to do what I do because of the people who came before me – because of that man with the third-grade education.”