Daryle Brantley, owner of C&K Barbecue in St. Louis, got an education in local ‘cue at a young age.
Growing up in St. Louis in the late 1950s, his grandfather, a Baptist minister, would take him to Q King at North Kingshighway Boulevard and St. Louis Avenue after church on Sundays. Brantley says Q King was hugely popular, especially after church service, because it was a dine-in restaurant. But in his opinion, the best barbecue could be found down the street from his grandmother’s house at Academy Barbecue.
“I was a little-bitty guy,” he says with a laugh. “About a mile from Q King was a little lady who was making barbecue and selling it out of the window of an old four-family building. She had lines of people. Zero degree weather – lines two blocks. She had the best barbecue as far as I’m concerned. Ever. Then she passed, and along came Mr. King.”
Although Brantley is now 66 years old himself, he still refers to Forris King as Mr. King. He has great respect for the man who opened C&K at Lee Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri, in the mid-1960s with his friend Ozvie Carr. “Dad’s barbecue roots are in Mississippi,” Carr’s son Freeman Ford told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1982. “He did a lot of barbecuing down there, and when he moved up here about 20 years ago, he brought his family’s secret sauce recipe with him. My mom added to it.” Six months after opening C&K in Ferguson, King and Carr relocated to Carter and Newstead avenues, and within a year, King and his nephew opened a second location at Martin Luther King Drive and Goodfellow Boulevard.
Brantley was a freshman in high school in 1966 when his mother first sent him around the corner to get barbecue from the original C&K. He knew the owner’s son, Mike King, from school, and they’re still friends today.
After graduating high school, Brantley served a tour of duty in Vietnam with the U.S. Army. When he returned home, he married his childhood sweetheart, Janette, in 1972. By 1982, Brantley entered a business partnership with King, and made him a promise: “I believe in C&K so much, I’m going to give it everything I got. I told him, ‘We’re gonna put C&K everywhere.'"
King replied, “Son, I wish you would.”
It hasn’t exactly worked out that way – not yet, at least. Brantley did open a C&K on Jennings Station Road – the one still in business today – in 1983. You can still find him there serving rib tips, smoked wings and pig snoots slathered in Carr’s tangy yet sweet, tomatoey sauce, made with a vinegar base and infused with black pepper. The red-and-white storefront features a small counter, plastic menus and not much else outside of the kitchen – if you’re lucky you can snag the solitary red bistro table for two out on the sidewalk.
The famous C&K sign features a red slab of ribs with utensils and the barbecue joint’s phone number – Brantley says he’s OK with updating the branding, as long as that hand-painted logo remains. Customers still queue up for the same messy pork steak and pulled pork sandwiches on white bread, topped with creamy potato salad and wrapped in brown butcher paper – just ask for it “ol’skool,” as the menu instructs.
In the first 10 years after Brantley took over, he served everything in that butcher paper, but eventually added plastic foam containers to cater to customers from big St. Louis-based companies like McDonnell Douglas who needed to go back to the office without a shirt covered in barbecue sauce.
By 1987, the original two locations were closed, but Brantley had added two more, one in Ferguson and another on the 10000 block of Page Avenue, for a total of three. This period of expansion was possible due to Brantley’s growing clientele. St. Louis was booming in the ‘80s: McDonnell Douglas and Monsanto employed thousands of people in the St. Louis area, as did General Motors and Chrysler.
The Ferguson and Page Avenue locations only lasted for about a year and a half each, but Brantley wasn’t deterred. As early as 1991, he got the original and hot versions of C&K’s barbecue sauce on local grocery-store shelves.
“My dad was driven, passionate and really on fire in the ‘80s,” Brantley’s daughter, Jamila, says.
Brantley doesn’t dispute her description.
“I’m a salesperson first and foremost, and C&K’s what I represent,” he says. “Sales teaches you, you have to love your customers. I know who takes care of my family, who put my grandkids through school. As long as I’m in business, I can’t get laid off. That’s why I jumped [on C&K].”
Brantley will be the first to tell you that St. Louis has long been a barbecue town. However, in the past decade, the city has seen – as have cities across the country – something of a barbecue boom. Each new restaurant draws from different regional barbecue styles and traditions, and offers a distinct dining experience. Jamila believes there’s room and money for everyone, adding that when “you’ve been around for so long, you don’t really think about the competition. When you’re the model, you just stay consistent and focus on your vision and goal.”
What you won’t find at these newer restaurants, though, are menu items like pig ears, fried tripe sandwiches and pig snoots “ol’skool.”
The pig snoots at C&K – or snouts, as they're called here – aren’t quite what you’d expect. Instead of a literal pig snout on a plate, the nostrils are cut off, the meat is scored – Jamila says it’s really more like pig face, as they use the sides and cheeks as well, which is a traditional preparation – cooked until crispy and slathered in C&K’s pepper-infused sauce.
The snoots at C&K have been well documented by groundbreaking food writers Jane and Michael Stern in their book Roadfood, which was first published in 1977. In the early 1980s, the Sterns were in St. Louis in search of the St. Paul sandwich for a subsequent edition of their book, and literally stumbled upon C&K.
“I’m originally from Chicago, so I was aware that Midwestern cities had a really rich heritage of barbecue that’s very different from the barbecue you find in, say, Texas or North Carolina,” Michael Stern recalls. “And when we came across C&K, it was a revelation to us.”
The Sterns met Brantley and tried, among other things, snoots, which they had never seen on a menu before.
“I had to ask what they were, and he [just] said, ‘Snoots!’” Stern laughs. “For us, it was a fabulous discovery. We loved the taste and texture of the snoots, and the rough-around-the-edges spirit of C&K – as far from hipster and yuppie as a place could possibly be. And that was just so appealing, but the flavor of the food was tremendous.”
In their 2009 book 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late: And the Very Best Places to Eat Them, the Sterns delve into greater detail about the snoots at C&K.
“Proud of serving every part of the pig 'from the rooter to the tooter,' this soulful destination makes a specialty of snoots, which are pig proboscides sliced into wieldy cutlets. They have a good crunch to their exterior, inside of which is something more like fat than meat. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – what’s better than hot pig fat? – but alone on a plate, snoots are overwhelming… . That’s where C&K’s thick red sauce springs into action. The hot stuff especially adds tang and a pepper punch that are a miracle pick-me-up for snoots, transforming something low on the hog into a barbecue parlor delicacy.”
If snoots aren’t your thing, you can try the lunch special: fried tripe (for the uninitiated, tripe is the lining of a cow's stomach) sandwiched between white bread and topped with mustard, pickles, onions and hot sauce. Another specialty is the rib-tip sandwich with mustard, hot sauce, pickles and onions, made with the tender cartilage that is trimmed away when ribs are cut St. Louis-style. These trimmings are often discarded, which is a shame, because they’re delicious; C&K says it’s sold more than 3 million rib tips over the years.
For the more adventurous, C&K also serves pigs’ ears. “When you get an ear, it looks like an ear,” Stern says. The ears are stewed and served on a sandwich with C&K’s creamy potato salad, which has a consistency similar to mashed potatoes.
The Sterns have visited C&K multiple times in the past 30-something years, and they believe it should receive just as much acclaim as any other local restaurant or culinary destination. As a 1990 Associated Press story published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch attests, the Sterns have long sought out authentic regional American cuisine. “Not just food, but ‘food in its cultural context’ is what interests the Sterns, whose accounts whet appetites for the flavor of a disappearing America.”
Stern says that's just as true today. “I tend to get annoyed when people in cities think barbecue is the trendy place,” he says. “In terms of connections to culinary heritage and the community, those places are pretty thin-seeming. Daryle and C&K seem to me as much a part of St. Louis as toasted ravioli.”
“St. Louis-style ribs are defined by the way they’re cut. They’re essentially manicured spareribs, with tips, sternum and cartilage removed,” explains Andrew Zimmern in a 2015 episode of his Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations featuring C&K. “Taking away these parts results in a neatly shaped, rectangular rack that, if cooked properly, will produce uniformly tender meat.”
As Zimmern talks, Brantley deftly brushes a full rack of ribs with C&K’s famous sauce. Happy customers gleefully tear into the ribs before even leaving the carry-out counter. At the end of the segment, Brantley says, “C&K barbecue sauce is so much a part of me that I believe it’s in my veins.”
After the episode first aired in 2015, the Brantleys got messages – and visitors – from all over the world. Jamila says business sees an uptick every time the episode airs; people make the trip from places as far-flung as Australia, Germany and South Africa.
“It was crazy,” Jamila says. “All they know is ‘C&K’ and ‘barbecue.’ They’re on Google Translate to figure out what we’re gonna order for them.”
But Bizarre Foods wasn’t the restaurant’s only brush with fame. Praise from O, The Oprah Magazine didn’t hurt either. The barbecue joint is also listed in the America the Great Cookbook alongside the likes of Dan Barber, David Chang and Mario Batali.
Although C&K has long garnered local and national attention, this recent wave of acclaim happened after Jamila got involved in the family business. She worked in the sales and mortgage industries, including almost 10 years at Citigroup Inc., and operating her own mortgage company. Jamila never saw herself taking over C&K. “I was watching my mom and dad get up every day and go to work, and that bothered me,” she says. “My mom said, ‘Sales are down, and [we want] to save on payroll.'"
Jamila decided to apply her business savvy to C&K and hopefully make life better for her parents – and for the restaurant’s bottom line. “I came back, and I applied that sales knowledge, and sales went up every quarter.”
Originally, Brantley envisioned his oldest son Oz taking over C&K, but the one-time high school football star now lives in Dallas. Jamila, the second-oldest of his four children, took over managing C&K about four years ago.
“Once she took over, she put her touch on the business,” Brantley says. “Jamila’s got the entrepreneur’s spirit like her dad; she’s a leader. She’s very mature, well read, aggressive and she just started making things happen. Her touch, my wife’s touch – I think that just enhances everything. She’s the future.”
Jamila says she and her family thought about changing locations for a while, as people were having trouble getting to C&K – the Pine Lawn Police Department famously gave out more than 19,000 traffic tickets in a city of 3,419 in 2014 before being dissolved in 2016 – but ultimately, the Brantleys wanted to remain an anchor for the community. C&K also attracts tourists and customers from across the St. Louis area, and it’s important to the Brantleys to keep the business in Pine Lawn.
“We’ve gotten so close with customers over the years that they literally come support my kids’ basketball and football games,” Jamila says. “They’re always shouting us out and letting their out-of-town guests know that you really haven’t visited St. Louis until you’ve been to C&K.”
Brantley believes that as long as he and his family put the quality of the food first, that their customers will keep lining up at the walk-up window. “I’m going to give [customers] the best product I can,” he says. “I’m not going to cheat ‘em on portions; I’m not going to tweak my recipe to save money because sugar and pepper [prices] are going up. As long as I do that, we’ll always be king. That’s why we're still here.”
The Sterns stopped by C&K again in 1998 in a rented minivan to update Roadfood – with a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter and photographer in tow. (Their trip was also published in the April 1999 issue of Gourmet magazine in their column, “Two for the Road.”)
“Standing in the steamy storefront, fragrant with smoke and spice, Michael orders an ear sandwich, snouts (pronounced snoots) and rib tips. The clerk takes the order. ‘You see us in the Road book, right?’ he asks,” Judith Evans wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “‘The Roadfood book?’ Michael asks. ‘Yep.’ ‘We wrote it.’”
C&K wasn’t included in some editions of Roadfood because the Sterns hadn’t made it back in several years – new editions have been released about once every three years since 1977 – and weren’t sure if it was still open. To their delight, they stopped by about a year and a half ago and found it not only open, but thriving.
“As we drove up, I was wondering if Daryle’s still there, because he was the guy we’d met 25 years ago," Stern says. "And we looked up, and there he was on the roof, making a repair. One of my fundamental beliefs is that hands-on presence of the owner [is what] makes a great restaurant at every level, whether you’re talking about the swankiest four-star restaurant or C&K – the fact that the owner is there not only supervising the kitchen but making repairs on his roof, you know this is a business that somebody is taking very seriously. And sure enough, the food was as delicious as I remembered it.”
Today the Brantley family is excited about another new building improvement: The addition of a deck over the C&K parking lot, where customers can sit down, eat and stay awhile. Soon they’ll launch a new and improved website for C&K, too.
“C&K will be around long after I’m gone; I can promise you that,” Brantley says. “We had our 45th [wedding] anniversary – they threw us a surprise party day before yesterday. We had a great time. Then I find out Jamila closed the store at 7pm on a Saturday! But I was happy. I love my family. Being married 45 years to the same woman? I’m so happy. That’s a beautiful thing. I’m so grateful and thankful. ”
Father and daughter would like to see Pine Lawn improve economically with the help of C&K. In Jamila’s eyes, a community center would be a boon – somewhere for kids to hang out with a computer lab, math and science programs, pingpong tables and a swimming pool.
And like so many other entrepreneurs, the Brantleys are hoping to expand their retail opportunity through a strategic partnership with Amazon. Although C&K sells its famous barbecue sauce through its website, getting on Amazon would make things much easier.
“Our slogan is, ‘The ultimate barbecue experience,’ and it truly is,” Jamila says. “We ship sauce to Germany, Australia, California, Colorado – wherever. It’s easier and the technology is better [now] to mass market our work through Amazon.”
Jamila hopes to eventually build C&K into a franchise and offer an app for online ordering, payment and delivery.
She has added menu items to take C&K into the 21st century, too: smoked asparagus, cauliflower, corn and jackfruit, wheat bread as an alternative to white, alkaline water. No, barbecue will never exactly be health food, but Jamila believes it’s all about balance.
And what about those famous pig snoots? Even Jamila wouldn’t try them growing up.
“I like to compare it to a pork rind,” she says. “You use the potato salad as a dip – it’s kind of like a chip instead of a snoot! You’d be surprised… You how people love bacon? It’s that flavor. It’s that same flavor; it makes you crave it.”
C&K Barbecue, 4390 Jennings Station Road, Pine Lawn, Missouri, 314.385.8100, candkbbq.com