Angie Ellis Edenfield (left) laughs and embraces Seni Alabi-Isama (right). Alabi-Isama was stopping by Ellis Farm Fresh Meats to pick up supplies for The Smoque Pit. Photo by Blakeley Bartee.
Seni Alabi-Isama, owner of local barbecue restaurant The Smoque Pit, is no stranger to business in Main Street Statesboro. He started with a computer shop on East Main Street, then moved on to restaurants on South Main Street – first, South & Vine, which later burned down, and then 441 Public Kitchen and Bar, which he ran for about a year, and finally, the Smoque Pit.
“Every business I’ve ever done has been on Main Street,” Alabi-Isama said. “I’ve been a believer in Main Street long before there was anything called a Blue Mile. I always said, if I do any business in this town, it’s going to be on Main Street.”
Alabi-Isama said the local restaurants in Statesboro are a close-knit group. He’s a big fan of Eagle Creek Brewery, Gnat’s Landing and other small businesses.
“We all look out for each other wherever we can,” Alabi-Isama said. “Whether it be Three Tree – we use their coffee whenever we can here, and they’ll use our meats for different things in their restaurant. Al at Gnat’s Landing is a big supporter of ours, and we’re certainly a supporter of his.”
Alabi-Isama left the restaurant in the afternoon to pick up supplies from Ellis Farm Fresh Meats on West Main Street, where Angie Ellis Edenfield handed him a paper bag of items. She said the meat market is a family business that has been running for about 53 years, and they began working with the Smoque Pit when the restaurant opened.
At the meat market, Alabi-Isama pet the puppy that was leashed in the front entrance. He said he discovered Ellis Farm Fresh Meats while he was a student at Georgia Southern University, where he majored in English.
“I love the brisket, that’s my special item that I like,” Edenfield said of the restaurant. “And sometimes, when [Alabi-Isama] comes to get his meat and items from us, he brings me a sandwich.”
Alabi-Isama, born in Nigeria, said he moved to the United States when he was 5 or 6 years old. He said his mother and grandmother were great cooks, and he’s been cooking for many years.
“I’ve cooked my whole life. Food is something that just makes sense to me,” Alabi-Isama said.
Yet, the Smoque Pit owner was not always a barbecue chef. He only began cooking barbecue after he set his eyes on the building where he later opened the restaurant.
“I’m not a barbecue guy by trade,” Alabi-Isama said. “It’s just, I thought this place looked like a barbecue joint, and you can’t open a barbecue joint without barbecue, so I figured I should learn how to make barbecue.”
Alabi-Isama tried as much barbecue as he could in the time leading up to the restaurant’s opening. At home, however, he said he cooks a lot of Caribbean and Creole food, with plenty of pasta, fruits and vegetables.
His old restaurant, South & Vine, offered an eclectic menu, with shrimp and grits, gumbo, roast chicken, fresh fish, steaks, burgers and pasta. He said all of the food in the restaurant was handmade, from the buns to the pickles and ketchup.
Alabi-Isama remembers the exact date South & Vine burned down: Aug. 26, 2014.
When he was asked what happened after South & Vine burned down, he sighed.
“Tried to find normal, you know? Your entire daily routine gets turned to ash, so you find a way,” Alabi-Isama said.
At the Smoque Pit, two servers and a few other staff members worked the first shift of the day. The two servers, Morgan Ray and Payton Ross, are both GS students.
Ross said the restaurant patrons are, for the most part, nice.
“I mean, there’s no tipping policy, but people will sometimes, and that’s just like wow, you didn’t need to do that, but thanks,” Ross said.
Despite the no-tipping policy, Ray said they are paid fairly – the servers receive a percentage of the sales from the day. She also said she knows some customers by name.
“We definitely do have regulars,” Ray said. “Most of them, we know by name, or they know us by name, and we’ve memorized their orders.”
The restaurant, Alabi-Isama said, has patrons of all ages. He said everyone likes barbecue. However, he described the local business economy as one where a business must find its niche to survive.
“It is an economy that, it’s sort of a double-sided coin here. You have things that center around the university and the student population that can thrive, but the Statesboro community is still not a tremendously wealthy community,” Alabi-Isama said.
Alabi-Isama said he doesn’t go out for dinner often. However, when he does, he said he tries to only go to local restaurants.
Local restaurants in Statesboro, Alabi-Isama said, stick together to compete with the restaurants that belong to larger chains.
Alabi-Isama said, “There’s no point in looking at someone as an adversary in a town this small, where there’s so few independent restaurants. We kind of have to stick together, because the large chain operations, they … can outlast us and outspend us all day. So what’s the point of beating on each other, when they’re out there doing a plenty good job on their own?”