While the debate among food critics as to where one can find the best barbecue in the country usually involves cities like Kansas City (Missouri), Memphis (Tennessee) and Austin (Texas), local native William Curtis has made it his mission to bring finger-licking good barbecue to downtown Urbana.
Riding the success of his Big Willie’s Barbecue food truck and catering business that opened in March 2016, Curtis will open the city’s newest restaurant – Big Willie’s Smokehouse – on Tuesday, Jan., 31, at 23 Monument Square.
“This town has been waiting for something like this,” he said. “One of the things we’ve set out to do here is build the brand. We want Big Willie’s (Curtis’ nickname in high school) to be here for a long time, so we are making sure we do it right.
“You only get one chance to make a first impression,” Curtis added.
A 1989 graduate of Urbana High School, Curtis is no stranger to area food enthusiasts, having worked as a chef for the past 25 years at various locations ranging from local establishments like The Farmer’s Daughter and Castle’s Country Restaurant, to high-end steakhouses like the Simon Kenton Inn in Springfield.
Curtis’ journey down the barbecue path began after he had to leave his executive chef position at the Simon Kenton Inn due to family reasons.
Having cooked at practically every restaurant in the area, Curtis said, he was at a point in his life where he wondered what was next for a man in his 40s.
“There wasn’t a lot of prospects for me, but I thought, I’m just going to take a leap, so I started building a food truck,” he added. “It took me nine months to roll it out, and business hasn’t stopped since. The response has been overwhelming and nonstop.”
Growing to the point where a storefront seemed like the next logical step in the business’s future was actually part of a five-year plan Curtis and his wife, Patty, laid out prior to opening the food truck/catering establishment.
Instead of years, however, the plan came to fruition in five months thanks to demand and availability.
“Basically, this restaurant came about because I had five weddings in the month of August,” Curtis said. “A couple of them were 200 to 300 people, and it’s kind of difficult to execute professionally out of a food truck. When the opportunity came to secure this building, we jumped on it in order to utilize the kitchen space and help with our caterings.
“At the end of our first season, we had to put the truck up due to the cold Ohio weather,” he added. “At that time, we thought, here we have this space and we have a year lease, let’s go ahead and utilize it.”
As for menu at Big Willie’s Smokehouse’s, Curtis said, it’s quite simple. It will feature beef brisket, pulled pork, pulled chicken and smoked turkey – four meats perfect to barbecue. The meats can be piled high on either a bun or wrap.
“We’ve designed a menu that is just a small extension of what we offer on the truck,” he added.
In addition to the meats, the restaurant will offer soup (chili and smoked vegetable beef), various sides like smoked baked beans and smoked macaroni and cheese, as well as deep-fried items (pickles, cheese sticks and smoked cheddar poppers).
“We also do smoked chicken wings, which are some of the best wings around,” Curtis said.
Big Willie’s Smokehouse will feature daily specials.
“We have installed a big special board because we want to be able to offer things like ribs, smoked salmon, and smoked chicken and noodles,” Curtis said. “The menu will grow as we grow. With the pressure that we are feeling from the public, we just need to get these doors open.”
For customers on the go, the restaurant will offer carryout, and in the future, Curtis is hoping to eventually add a delivery service to local businesses, etc.
Customers who enjoy the atmosphere of a sit-down restaurant can catch a glimpse of the past through the various photographs that line the walls. The four most prominent pictures, Curtis said, are enlarged versions of originals housed at the Champaign County Historical Museum. The images show the ceremony held when the Man on the Monument statue was dedicated, youths in 1932 showing steers in Monument Square, the former Millner’s Cafeteria, and the former Douglas Inn.
“We chose four that kind of represent what we are about here,” Curtis said. “We want people to be able to come in here and interact with these photographs and maybe see their great-grandpa in one of them.
“Perhaps, they might help people remember Millner’s Cafeteria or the Douglas when she was in her prime. The way she sits now is just heartbreaking,” he added.
One thing customers won’t be noticing, however, is a bar.
“We didn’t want the alcohol to bring you in,” Curtis said. “We want the food to do that. There are plenty of places downtown to get a drink after you’ve had a good meal.”
Big Willie’s Smokehouse, which employs a mix of 11 full-time and part-time employees, is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
“We want you to be able to come in here and get some good barbecue, listen to some bluegrass music and forget about your problems for a while,” Curtis said.