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Que 49 Smokehouse:
Where Yankee & Redneck Barbecue Collide

by Audrey Hanes, photography by Kayla Broadway

Three years after they began smoking meat together on the food festival circuit, Marion-born Skip Steele and Long Island native Dana Lamel decided to join culinary forces and bring their own unique brand of barbecue to Jonesboro with the opening of Que 49 Smokehouse.

Steele has been in the barbecue business since he was 14. He made his first grill from a propane tank he found in a junk yard, and after making several of them for friends, found himself in the grill-making business. Several years later, he opened his first restaurant in Jonesboro, J & E Deli, which was instantly a favorite with local diners.

“The next thing I knew, I had a line out the door,” said Steele. “Everything I cooked for the weekend was sold in advance. If you wanted a chicken, it was literally a three-week wait. I started thinking, ‘I might be on to something here.’ When the owners closed it, people followed me to my home – they’d call and ask if I was cooking that weekend and preorder food and come pick it up out of my driveway.”

From there, Steele began participating in the competition barbecue circuit. He qualified for the world championship in 1994 and placed sixth for his ribs, followed by a third-place finish in 1996.

Professionally, Steele was a marine surveyor, a job that took him to a different foreign country each week to load and unload steam ships.

“I really got to see barbecue all around the world, and I just soaked it up like osmosis because that’s all I wanted to do – hang out in kitchens,” he said. “If I was in South America, I was at (a restaurant’s) back door trying to figure out different ways to do the same thing. It exposed me to barbecue all over the world.”

After retiring at 40, Steele jumped right back into the barbecue business. He has helped open 19 restaurants, from Manhattan and Las Vegas to Germany and Taiwan. Most recently, he was a partner in Pappy’s Smokehouse and Bogart’s Smokehouse, both in St. Louis. Steele was representing Pappy’s when he met his future business partner, Lamel.

After learning to appreciate food and cooking from his mother, Lamel got his first restaurant job at the age of 14, folding boxes for an Italian eatery; four years later, he was promoted to sous chef. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Lamel worked alongside and opened four restaurants with Todd English before Michael Mina brought him on as the chef de cuisine for Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. In 2016, Steele was invited to the stadium to cook ribs for a tailgating event, where he met Lamel. The two kept in touch and ended up spending the next two years traveling the barbecue circuit and working events together.

“I thought I knew barbecue – I took first place in a rib contest once,” said Lamel. “When Skip came, after tasting his ribs, I realized I didn’t know the first thing about barbecue; that was one of the main things that made me realize I wanted to work with him and spend more time learning from him. It changed my life.

“I really enjoy the people – the barbecue family; it’s a lot different than other types of culinary dining that I was used to, especially coming from fine dining. It was a completely different environment, and I really liked it. … Skip offered me a job to come work at Pappy’s. I didn’t want to work for anybody anymore, so we talked about doing something together, and he asked me what I thought about Jonesboro, Arkansas. We visited other locations like Denver, Omaha and Fayetteville, but we really saw the potential here with all the growth.”

Steele says that Jonesboro’s economy and proximity to his wife’s family made it a perfect fit for their vision of a new barbecue venue.

Que 49 opened its doors on July 4, the 19th restaurant opening for Steele and the first for Steele and Lamel to open together as owners. Both Que 49 owners say that this was the most stressful and lengthy process they’ve ever dealt with as far as restaurant openings, but now that the doors are open, they’ve felt extremely welcomed by the local community.

“I’ve never had a line out the door on day one when opening a restaurant, but we had a line out the door from the minute we opened at 11 that day,” said Lamel. “We already have many frequent customers, and we’ve only been open three weeks.”

Part of what makes the barbecue venue stand out is the lighthearted mood and the staff’s interaction with customers. Steele, who serves as the pit master and is responsible for the meats, and Lamel, who runs the kitchen, are joined by Steele’s daughter, Hannah, who serves as general manager, and Terrance Winters, the kitchen manager, known as the fried chicken king. Together with the rest of the staff, the owners and managers work to make the atmosphere relaxed and fun; they interact with patrons and give them samples of meat while they’re in line to order.

“I don’t think they’ve seen a restaurant like this before,” said Steele. “We have a higher degree of interacting with the customer. It’s pretty unique; we try to get out here and visit when we can. We want everyone to have an experience. We don’t want them to just get a pulled pork sandwich – they can get that plenty of places. We want them to have an experience when they order that here. We try to keep it really light and hire people that have that same sense of humor and encourage them to use it.”

“I’ve never had the interaction with customers like I do here,” added Lamel. “It’s blown my mind how many repeat customers we have in here very frequently for only being open a few weeks at this point. We’ve had a customer come back three times in one day.”

The memorable, savory meat and homemade menu items are what keep them coming back for more. From Que 49’s much-talked-about wings to its mouthwatering ribs and popular pulled pork, customers are raving about the barbecue and everything that comes with it.

“Everything you eat today was prepared for today,” said Steele. “It’s not something that was cooked days in advance. I insist everything be fresh every single day. Pork and beef have to cook overnight – between 14 and 20 hours depending on the cut – but everything else is cooked several times a day as needed. It’s all fresh.

“When you spend 40 years of your life doing the same thing every day, you learn a lot. You get pretty good at it. I can tell you that I cook by eye. I look at the meat, and the meat speaks to me. It tells me, it talks to me and tells me when it’s done. I can see the color change on it, I can see the meat pulling back from the bone, and it literally says, ‘Go get somebody to eat us.’ I use a thermometer on certain items, but mainly it’s by eye. Realistically, I’ve done the same style of cooking for 20-plus years.”

The meat is also made in limited quantities. Because it’s not smoked or grilled in advance, when it’s gone, it’s gone. The restaurant keeps an “86” list for when certain menu items sell out, and the burnt ends are usually the first item to go.

From the pickled red onions that garnish every plate to the sides, such as pit baked beans, coleslaw and deviled egg potato salad, all items except the bread are made in-house.

If the restaurant’s first few weeks in business are any indication, Que 49’s self-described redneck-meets-Yankee style has been welcomed with open arms. That reaction is what Lamel says he enjoys most about his role in the new restaurant.

“For me, in my past experiences in fine dining, you don’t see reactions on people’s faces; it’s a different type of clientele,” said Lamel. “Being here and opening this restaurant and seeing the way our customers are enjoying the food and the expression on their faces, it’s a really good feeling to see how much they’re enjoying what we’re doing.”

In the future, Steele and Lamel say they’d love to open Italian and fried chicken eateries in Jonesboro, as well.

“We see the potential for good food and restaurants here in Jonesboro that aren’t corporate,” said Lamel. “We are aiming for more of the mom and pop setup with a more personal touch.”

Que 49 Smokehouse, located off Highway 49 at 1312-A Red Wolf Blvd., is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. or until sold out. For more information, visit que49smokehouse.com or call (870) 333-5454.