Scott Thomas has created a recipe for success – and we aren’t even talking about the great barbecue sauce – at least not yet.
Thomas is a familiar face around Dexter these days. He’s the guy with the cowboy hat with the suspenders and that classic-looking mustache sitting behind the counter at the popular Hotel Hickman Chuckwagon Barbecue on Main Street.
He looks like he dropped in from a different century, but really he just dropped in from Southern Ohio to deliver his new hometown some tasty fresh ground sausage, pulled pork, beef brisket and smoking hot baby back ribs to name a few.
Thomas may look a little different but what’s really special about him is his love for barbecue and love of people stopping by his “hotel.” Customers are greeted warmly by the always enthusiastic Thomas who serves up plenty of good humor and cheer.
He also serves up some incredible barbecue.
The Hotel Hickman checked into downtown Dexter in November 2012. Thomas was doing cowboy reenactment events with his chuck wagon in 1999 and at one of the events he was asked to cook at a birthday party. While at the birthday party, they were hired to do a wedding and then it started to take off.
“We were busy on the weekends doing graduations, weddings and corporate events,” Thomas said. “About five years ago we started doing a roadside event over next to the Dexter Feed Mill. And about three years ago this building became available and we rented it and decided to see what happens. We started cooking and have been busy ever since.”
Thomas moved to Michigan from Ohio while working with Bob Evans restaurants. He was sent north and has been here ever since – although he eventually left the restaurant business to drive produce trucks across the country.
“I was in the restaurant business when I was younger and got out of it because I got tired of working holidays and weekends and now here I am working holidays and weekends,” he said.
And now he’s working holidays and weekends but the difference is he’s working for himself and his passion, barbecue.
He never thought of opening his own carry-out business but when the opportunity presented itself, he decided to turn up the heat and roll the dice.
“We were down at the Dexter Feed Mill cooking our roadside barbecue and the owner handed me the phone number to the village and said that this little building in town was for rent,” Thomas said, referring to the small building at 8050 Main Street. “We came up and looked at it and thought it would be cool to have a little kitchen in the wintertime.
“We talked to the Village, put together a business plan and the next thing I know we get a phone call saying that they were going to recommend to the Council that we get the building.”
That was in November 2012. And Thomas has been cooking ever since.
“We thought we were a little crazy to open a carry-out barbecue place heading into wintertime but we figured out all we needed to do was pay the rent and keep the lights on until the spring time,” he said. “We had enough of a following from being up at the Dexter Feed Mill that people actually showed up. We had a line out the door for the first two weekends.”
While people enjoy the warm hospitality at Dexter’s barbecue hotel, it’s the food that keeps bringing them back.
“We make our own sausage,” said Thomas who loads up the huge smoker behind the building every morning at 3 a.m. “We grind it, we season it, we hand stuff it into that 135-year-old cast iron stuffer. Our jalapeno smoked sausage is one of our biggest sellers along with the beef brisket.”
His business model is simple, but has proven to be the key to his success.
“If we do a quality meal at a reasonable price it will keep people coming back,” he said.
And people keep coming back.
“The reaction has been incredible,” said Thomas in between taking orders as the door opens frequently to new and returning customers alike. “Everyday people stop in and thank us for being here. I really can’t believe it. We are just doing what we like to do and people really like it which makes us feel good and blessed.”
Thomas recently went all-in on this tasty business venture. This past Memorial Day weekend, Thomas parked his semi for the last time and said goodbye to the trucking business.
“I quit my day job,” he said with a laugh. “My passion is right here to cook and preserve the heritage of chuck wagon cooking. And I need to be here full-time if we are going to be successful and accomplish some of the things we want to accomplish. I want to expand the business and grow it and get our sauces on the shelves in stores.
“I am doing what I like to do. We like to play in the kitchen and come up with different recipes and we make our own sausage from scratch. We have a lot of fun. Things are going really good for us.”
So, what about that sauce?
“People always ask me if it’s like Carolina barbecue or Memphis barbecue or Kansas City barbecue and I tell them it’s not like any of them,” he said. “We don’t imitate anyone. We do our own thing. It’s Dexter barbecue.”
With most small businesses, it’s hard to find metrics for success that relate to the general public, but Dexter Daze is a good source of one such figure. This past year, Thomas and his crew projected over 1,200 pounds of meat served at Dexter Daze 2015, which was achieved despite a slow start on Friday, Aug. 15 due to the weather.
The previous year, Dexter Daze-goers gobbled up nearly 1,400 pounds of succulent meats from the Hotel Hickman’s piping hot smokers and barbecues.
And what’s in the name?
“I live on Hickman Road over on the east side of Ann Arbor,” Thomas explained. “My wife is the youngest of 12 kids and I have two brothers and two sisters so someone is always coming or going or staying at our house so we started calling our house the Hotel Hickman.”
All of their recipes are from things they created in the kitchen.
“It’s trial and error and just playing around with different things,” he said. “We combined chuck wagon cooking with the Dutch ovens over an open fire and smoking and barbecuing and this is what we came up with.”
Thomas will use cherry, apple or hickory wood in the smoker.
“We have a local wood guy and he keeps us well supplied with cherry and apple,” he said. “People say that the type of wood you use with the smoker will alter the flavor but I can’t detect any difference.”
What he can detect are happy customers. And he sees more and more of them by the day enjoying his barbecue. Make that “Dexter barbecue.”
There’s still time to visit Hotel Hickman with their extended summer hours. Generally they’re opened from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Once the sun starts setting early enough, closing time shifts to 7 p.m., but if business continues to be brisk into the evening, the hours will stay late until business volume in the evening slows down.
“Every year we’re getting a little busier,” Thomas said. “One of our cooks says she figured out when we’re busy — all day long. We have a good breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s slowing up a bit now that the kids are back in school, but last year we were nice and steady right up until the holidays. People were buying food for Thanksgiving and Christmas parties so we’ll see what happens.”
Anyone traveling by the Dixboro General Store in Ann Arbor on Plymouth Road October 1 to 4 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. can stop in and say hello to Thomas and the Hotel Hickman road crew, who will be serving it up from their chuck wagon.