Barbeque is a staple in the South. It’s something that can unite us or divide us. Debates on vinegar, mustard, pulled, chopped, wood fired or charcoal have caused many an argument amongst those who profess to be the expert in the proper way to do barbeque. The longstanding history of Pitmasters is a conversation piece that goes all the way back to southern plantations. And for some families, their history runs a little deeper than others.
There is an art and a science to cooking. And there’s also the deeper side of running a successful business.
The Mitchell family in Wilson NC
Ed Mitchell has been known in the Wilson NC area for years. But before we knew Ed Mitchell, we knew the Mitchell family. When Ed returned to Eastern NC to help his mother at their family business – Mitchell’s Grocery Store, he had no idea that the family business would eventually turn into Mitchell’s Ribs, Chicken & B-B-Q. The humble business owner tells us that the first time he successfully cooked an entire hog was by accident. It was a right of passage in the life of a young boy that usually didn’t happen until much later in life. But for Mitchell, he ended up experiencing this honor at a very early age. The elder of the Mitchell team recounts the first time he “accidentally” cooked a hog by himself. It was during a family reunion where his father and grandfather were socializing and preparing the hog for the next day with the rest of the men in the family. As the men began to socialize, the moonshine began to flow. As a young boy, he was to be responsible for making sure that the fire was still lit while the men continued to cook. But unfortunately, when Southern Moonshine comes into play, things don’t always go as planned.
Mr. Mitchell laughs as he recalls how the men began socializing “a little too much”, and eventually began to doze off, leaving the young Pitmaster in training to “tend to the hog”. He talks about how his grandfather jumped up around 5am and yelled “Who’s been tending to this hog?”. With a crowd of silent Moonshine drinkers, the young Mitchell quietly revealed that he was the one who had been up all night tending to the hog. In that moment, Mitchell didn’t know if his admission would be met with gratitude or disapproval. But when his grandfather saw what Mitchell described as a “caramelized hog” laying there, he grabbed the bottle of moonshine and told Mitchell that he had done so great of a job that he deserved his first swig of moonshine. And from there, the Pitmaster was born.
Ryan Returns After College
“There’s a certain pressure of being the legman or woman involved in carrying out your family legacy. “ – Ryan Mitchell
Much like his father, Ryan got his start in the family business very early on at the family’s local grocery store. As a young boy you could find Ryan in the store standing on top of a milk crate cashing out customers and learning his way around. For him, it was second nature to be active in the family business, but it wasn’t necessarily something he considered a long term commitment. As he got older, working at the family business was simply a way for him to keep a little bit of change in his pockets for new clothes or football cleats. It wasn’t a part of his long term plan for success. There is a certain pressure that comes along with being the next leg in your family’s long history. Ryan’s sights were set on something completely different than the Mitchell family business. But as the old saying goes, “Tell God your plans and He’ll laugh at you”. Ryan had no idea that he would end up working with his father years later, and he most certainly didn’t expect to be doing it with such passion.
After graduating from ECU, the former Pirate football player had plans to dominate the business world. But a series of events led him back to working in the family business. The first couple of years of the father-son duo working together actually ran a little smoother than expected. Ed Mitchell allowed his son the room to introduce new concepts to the business. He knew that if he laid the foundation, that his son would add his expertise from the business world in order to make the company grow. Ryan added technology to the daily operations, while his dad continued to work on maintaining the integrity of the brand. But for Ryan, it was a difficult road emotionally coping with being back in Eastern NC in a capacity that was different from what he had originally envisioned. “I graduated with an Econ degree. I didn’t want to go back home and cook barbeque. I’m trying to get out into the world in New York or LA, or whatever my peers were. So I was struggling with being in Eastern NC and all of the racial politics involved in trying to be a minority entrepreneur”.
The Politics of Que
“As a minority business, there is always some sort of pandemic that we are having to maneuver” – Ryan Mitchell
Although the tradition had been in the family for years, the Mitchell duo cooked their first commercial hog in 1991. But the commercial environment was a little different than their normal routine. Ryan talks about the beginning of their commercial journey. “For the first 3 or 4 years, we were going through a bunch of underground politics and business disruptions behind the scenes.” He says he learned how small farmers were treated and the difficulty of having access to animals and agriculture. It was an entirely different world that he had no clue existed when he was growing up. “If you’re dealing with animals or agriculture in Eastern NC, your pockets better be deep and you better be ready for another world”. His father says he remembers several moments where he could sense his son’s frustration. It was something that he had seen and experienced time and time again, and knew that if he was going to be in the business for the long run that he had to dismiss the nonsense and keep his eye on his craft.
Ryan says he came back “with a cape on” ready to take on the world. He says there was a pivotal moment when he came to the realization “I’m going to get more gratification doing this with family than I ever will sitting in a cubicle somewhere”. So he rolled up his sleeves and decided that he was going to put his heart and soul into growing the family legacy. It was the notion of being able to see the sacrifices that his family had to deal with that set off the light bulb in his head. “You have to want to wear the cloak of continuing the legacy more than you want to be famous or make a certain amount of money. The dollars are going to come, but the value is in the story and to be able to talk about the test of time that you’ve had to go through”.
Notoriety and Remaining Genuine
“I don’t do anything quick…I do everything with passion.” – Ed Mitchell
Ed Mitchell takes pride in his esteemed title of Pitmaster. The term goes all the way back to the early days of the plantation. As Ed Mitchell describes, it was an honor to be chosen to be the person on the plantation to prepare the hog for a big occasion. But in the old days they referred to the esteemed chef as a “pit boy”. It wasn’t until later years that people began to treat the role with more respect, and designating terms like Pitmaster to distinguish between any other person who was simply manning the grill.
When the term “foodie” began to be a popular phrase, it shined a spotlight on southern cooking, and more specifically on barbeque. Ed Mitchell, having come from several generations of men who prepared legendary whole hog barbeque, never sought out to prove that his ‘que was the best. But others sought out to try and prove that they could possibly beat him at his game. When Internationally known Chef Bobby Flay called on Ed Mitchell and his son Ryan for his infamous ‘Beat Bobby Flay’ challenge, the father-son duo didn’t miss a beat, and they most certainly didn’t change a single thing when showcasing their skills to an audience who wasn’t as familiar with Eastern NC barbeque. The Wilson NC native has traveled and showcased his skills everywhere from NYC to Melbourne Australia. And at each location, he maintains the integrity of his craft, insisting that nothing be done quickly, no shortcuts be taken, and that only quality ingredients are used throughout the entire process. He says he doesn’t mind sharing his techniques with others because his passion is what sets him apart from others.
The future for Ed Mitchell’s Que : Sauces, Shows, & Collaborations
Although the Mitchells had always relied on the freshest of ingredients in their cooking, it was when Ed Mitchell became ill and was diagnosed as prediabetic in 2017 that their team decided to venture into the world of condiments and sauces. With his everyday entrepreneurial spirit, Ryan ended up spearheading a partnership with True Made Foods, and created a line of sauces that uses all natural ingredients and promotes using products with less sugar or preservatives. He approached his partner with the idea of developing some old family recipes but without sugar.
Although most of the Pitmasters thought the idea of changing the products in this manner was crazy, there were a lot of consumers who were constantly questioning why there were not as many minority owned companies producing healthier products; especially since minority communities are the ones who are suffering most from poor health. Ryan says that he went back to his roots and relied upon the techniques that his grandparents used before there was such a thing as commercially processed sauces and spices.
The products are sold in over 5,000 stores across the country like Whole Foods, and have already become best sellers. There are also plans to release a line of rubs and hot sauces in 2021. The collaboration has led them to recently partner with the Boston Red Sox to become the official condiment of the baseball stadium. They are hoping to continue to expand and get into other sporting arenas across the country.
This newest venture has opened up the Mitchell family to a different world of entrepreneurship where they are learning the ins and outs of production, marketing, branding, and of course quality control. In addition to the product line, the Mitchells are also claiming their spot in front of the camera as well. They are in preparation for several television and streaming series where they travel the country, test out cooking techniques, and talk with others about their own family traditions. In staying true to their nature of sharing their family history, the Mitchells are also releasing a cookbook, as well as a virtual kitchen and partnership with DoorDash, and the brick and mortar restaurant in the Triangle. It’s almost full circle for Ed Mitchell as it strongly resembles his start in the world as a Pitmaster in training sitting around the fire watching his family socialize and create magic.
Ed smiles and declares his gratitude for the experience of building the business with his son, noting that he was grateful to “be there with him and see that he and I could lock arms and figure it out together”. He credits his son’s patience and growth in business, along with the balance that they each bring to their growing brand as the reason they are as successful as they are today. Together he and Ryan have figured out how to maneuver in a world that isn’t always very welcoming to black entrepreneurs.
You can catch Ed & Ryan Mitchell on Moonshiners on Discovery+ airing in March