Saturday, July 13, 2024

Memphis couple falls in love over BBQ, 30 years later turns it into a business

Keith and Jan Laxton launched Keith’s Memphis Style BBQ in February; the food truck will be parked at multiple locations in the coming week. (Courtesy photo)

WILMINGTON —  “One of our first dates was when Keith was doing a barbecue cook-off,” Jan Laxton said on a phone call with Port City Daily Wednesday. “It was some little town in Shake Rag, Tennessee, where I swear there’s not even a light.”

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It was almost three decades ago; Jan joined Keith and a bunch of men, “just sitting around a box, drinking beer.” They were watching over the smoker, slow roasting pork butts and brisket. 

Today — six kids and 10 grandchildren later — the Laxtons continue the tradition. Only this time it’s for their food truck, Keith’s Memphis Style BBQ, which made its Wilmington debut in February. 

Keith began competing on the BBQ circuit 14 years ago and won more awards than he can count. Though he’s no longer participating in competitions, the food truck fulfills his love for barbecue.

He exited a 30-year career in the medical industry — first running a contract therapy clinic and then selling orthotics — to open Keith’s Memphis Style BBQ.

Before that, Keith was in the restaurant business, owning corporate chains like Sonic Drive-Ins in the early ‘90s as well as mom-and-pop restaurants. But the medical industry paid well. 

“I really was just tired of working for other people,” Keith said.

“Keith’s a great salesperson, for sure — natural born,” Jan said, “but his passion is really cooking. He always cooks for our family and, honestly, I’ll say that’s the reason I married him.”

Jan has run her own organic skin care line for a decade but joins Keith to run the food truck. It has embedded them into the local community, something welcoming as the couple knew no one when they moved from their home of Memphis in 2020 after watching “The Choice.” 

“We’ve probably seen it 50 times,” Jan said. 

Jan and Keith Laxton serving at their food truck. (Courtesy photo)

The Nicholas Sparks’ love story is based in Wilmington and was filmed in the Port City. Once they decided to relocate, the two Googled Wilmington.

“We never even saw our apartment,” Keith said. “It was brand new, but…”

Since, they’ve settled into a new home and bought a 16-foot food truck, as well as a separate trailer for the smoker. Keith first used pork shoulder but found it needed more coddling, as the cook time is 24 hours. He switched to butts, which go in for 12 hours, the brisket smokes for eight.

The method is simple: low and slow, with the right amount of spice blend. They’re drub-rubbed with Keith’s special concoction, consisting of salt, pepper, garlic, paprika and other spices he’s remiss to divulge. 

“He’s had this rub for years and years,” Jan said. 

It’s served as is but customers can choose to use sauces. The food truck offers three: a vinegar sauce, to satiate the Carolina BBQ lovers, a sweet sauce for Memphis fans and a mustard base, representative of South Carolina.

Keith started out making the sauces but then found Morgan’s Carolina Q’, founded by Douglas Morgan Jr. of Wilmington. He passed away in April, however, his family still runs the company, which has sauces in local grocers like Harris Teeter.

Aside from barbecue, the truck carries chicken tenders for kids and also a handful of sides: baked beans, cole slaw, mac and cheese, fries, onion rings and chips.

Occasionally, they’ll offer ribs on the menu, depending on if they have the time and scheduling.

One of the largest events they’re slated for in coming weeks is the 7,200 fans at the Phish concert at Live Oak Bank Pavilion. 

“It will be our first one at the venue,” Keith said.

Next week’s July Fourth holiday, according to the Laxtons, will be a test of endurance. They are doing double the pork butts and brisket than normal weeks that have the truck parked at around five or six events. 

They have 10 scheduled in seven days, meaning upward of 15 butts and 10 briskets will need to be prepared ahead of time. 

But Keith is confident; he comes from a long line of barbecue fanatics. 

“My father, my uncles, my grandfather was always into it,” he said. “So it just only made sense that we got into it.”

Keith’s Memphis Style BBQ’s upcoming schedule:

June 29 — End of Days Distillery, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
June 30 — Summit Logistics, 11 a.m. – 1:30 p.m., and Bull City Ciderworks, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
July 1 — Dead Crow Comedy, 6 p.m. – 9 p.m.
July 2 — Flying Machine Brewery, 1 p.m. – 4 p.m.
July 3 — Figure 8 Island Yacht Club, 6 p.m. – 9 p.m.
July 4 — Flying Machine Brewery, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
July 6 — Hendrix Honda, 11 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. 
July 7 — Palate, 6 p.m. – 9 p.m.
July 8 — Cape Fear Pop Culture Fest, 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. 

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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