When it comes to barbecue, Southern Yanks comes out smoking

Rick Shrum
Observer Reporter

They are military brats, first cousins who spent parts of their formative years following a moving van.

“I was in the Marines. Our whole family has been in the Marines,” Bruno Thigpen said, flashing his trademark smile and burly biceps.

“I wasn’t in the Marines, but my dad was,” Matthew Fiedler said. “I pretty much grew up on bases. The playground for our elementary school was an obstacle course (the Marines) had left behind.”

Each has resided out of state, including the Carolinas, and both eventually settled in southeastern Washington County. Now they are settling in as co-owners of a business that is, literally, smoking hot.

Their Southern Yanks Smokehouse is approaching six months of operation in downtown Washington. It has been the source of enticing aromas wafting up and down West Chestnut Street, a few storefronts down from Rich’s Barber Shop and catty-corner from a local culinary icon: Shorty’s Lunch.

This is a barbecue restaurant, offering brisket and pulled pork sandwiches with six sides and five sauces from which to choose. Benches and tables accommodate about 12 for lunch or dinner. There is no liquor license, and the ubiquitous french fry is not among their selections.

Thigpen, Fiedler and Fiedler’s wife, Falisha, comprise the staff, which handles management, food preparation, bookkeeping and cleanup duties. Falisha also bakes the desserts at 57 West Chestnut, inside a building constructed in 1891 that previously housed an insurance agency.

This small group gets smaller in mid-afternoon, when one of the Fiedlers has to return to the family’s Marianna home to pick up their three children – ages 6 to 13 – from school.

Southern Yanks, however, also is a meat shop, where customers may buy larger quantities of smoked brisket, pork and ribs. Rotisserie chickens – whole and half – are available as well. All of the meats go into a smoker; none on a grill top.

The cousins admit that their business has been somewhat under the radar. Yet it appears to be gaining momentum. “Our name is getting out there,” Matthew said.

It certainly was out there a few months ago, when the Observer-Reporter published its 2018 Best of the Best results. Despite opening July 20 – seemingly too late to attract enough regional votes – Southern Yanks finished third in the barbecue category, behind the established Hog Father’s and Fourth Street Barbeque, the runner-up.

Thigpen, a Fredericktown resident, said Southern Yanks does well at lunchtime. “We sell out quite a bit. That’s nice, but it’s a double-edged sword because people see we’re out (of food).”

He added that the trio is focused on attracting larger dinner crows, which is why they expanded Friday hours. Southern Yanks is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday; and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday.

This isn’t the cousins’ first culinary venture. They tried to launch a restaurant in New Jersey, but had a bad experience with contractors and abandoned that plan. They eventually shifted focus to this area, near their homes. Their focus?

“We didn’t want pizza because there’s pizza every five feet here,” Thigpen said.

“I said barbecue would be a good thing to do,” Matthew Fiedler said. “We put together a base menu and tweaked it.”

They found a property to lease on West Chestnut, one that needed a lot of work and TLC. Matthew Fiedler provided the labor along with his parents, Dennis and Sherri of Centerville.

“My dad and I built everything here. There was never a kitchen here,” Fiedler said. “We had nasty carpeting that we took out. We wanted to keep the original pine flooring, to keep a rustic feel.”

The lone restroom, which the Fiedlers cobbled together, only enhances that feel. The restroom is spacious with modern amenities, and is accessed through a door that once had been the front of an outhouse.

Thigpen is an experienced cook and master of the smoker. He was born in this area, but grew up in South Carolina, where he learned to prepare food. He worked at Le Cordon Bleu in Pittsburgh for several years and in Alaska for eight.

Their business name is distinctive and symbolic of their travels. Both lived in the South and are now north of the Mason-Dixon – Yankees, in Civil War parlance.

The owners are working with other local businesses, catering for one and having another design their logo, and plan to expand their cooperative efforts. And, over time, they intend to expand their operation.

“We have to save money for a bigger smoker,” Thigpen said. “We really have to pack (the food) in the one we have. We’ll have to get a bigger rotisserie, too.”

Adding deliveries, a food truck and a more appealing storefront are high on their wish list. They also want to beef up their menu, with smoked chicken wings, combo deals, homemade salads and soups.

“We’re working on a rib sandwich,” Thigpen said. “Also racks of ribs.”

All of that would add flavor to what has been a flavorful enterprise.