A highly renowned, yet subtly known, historic Huntsville barbecue restaurant has closed its doors after 53 years of service.
“When you look from the outside when you are passing, there’s nothing out front that will make you want to stop here, even the flag,” New Zion Missionary Baptist Church reverend and former Church’s BBQ pitmaster Clinton Edison said, referencing a flaming BBQ flag that once called out to drivers by on Montgomery Road, now strewn across an empty table.
“But once you came in and ate the food, you’d be back, and that’s the truth.”
Church’s BBQ, an extension to New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, quietly closed its doors Saturday after 53 years of serving up what one Saveur magazine reporter called “some of the most tender, flavorful barbecue in the state.”
At first, the Reverend communicated no mixed feelings about the closure, however he found himself sad to see the long-running history of the restaurant reach an end.
“This restaurant started when the facility next door was on a wood frame building. One day, I think on a Saturday, the deacons came over to do some repair work and the wives said, ‘we’ll make an outing of it, we’ll go clean up the church,’ and around noon-time Sister Ward began to cook their husbands dinner,” Edison said.
Ward found a foot tub to hold a fire and placed a refrigerator rack over the top to grill meat on.
“She said, ‘I couldn’t prepare our husbands’ dinner without people stopping and asking if we were selling barbecue,” Edison said.
The next week the women borrowed $50 from the church to open Church’s BBQ, and has since remained a functional restaurant benefitting New Zion Missionary Baptist Church for 53 years.
The building was eventually built to comply with city codes to serve food inside, however the rusty smoker still sits out front like at a friendly neighborhood cook-out.
“We closed the doors once before … when Sister Ward passed on, Deacon Archie and Sister May Archie came over and began to operate it, but when Sister Archie passed away unexpectedly, it just kind of overwhelmed the deacon and he closed it up,” Edison said.
The calls came pouring in asking when the barbecue would open again, and since he could not get anyone to open it, he took it upon himself to jump in.
“It was the cry of the people that made me open it, and that was 11 years ago,” Edison said.
The job of pitmaster to one of the state’s most acclaimed barbecue joints wasn’t exactly his passion, however with time, his feelings changed.
“When I stepped into the job, it kind of grew on me, I learned a whole lot about running a restaurant,” Edison said.
Edison became a pitmaster with no background in cooking, only the famous recipes passed down to him through his predecessors.
“Everything from the potato salad, the beans and the meat all came from Sister Ward. We didn’t change anything one iota when we took over the store. She had put everything in place and we just followed and continued what she was doing, because it was so successful, so we just ran with it,” Edison said.
The interior of Church’s BBQ is adorned with photos of happy customers with familiar faces of former Houston Mayor Bill White and former Texas Governor Mark White.
Snippets of reviews by a slew of noteworthy publications – from Texas Monthly and Texas Highways to National Geographic – that have made the trip out to the Piney Woods to get a taste of the pit’s famously tender brisket, ribs, sausage and chicken hang alongside photos of Church’s BBQ founder and original pitmaster, Sister Annie Mae Ward herself.
“You can put whatever kind of sauce you want on it, but the key ingredient is the smoked meat that comes off that pit,” Edison said. “A man one time told me, ‘you don’t even need teeth to eat this.’”
Edison moved to Huntsville from Alabama in 1981, and noted the significant change he’s seen within the city in his 38 years here. While the closure seems sudden to many, Edison said that it’s a sad fate that had been a long time coming. Edison attributed a surge in restaurant development and a less than desirable location on the outskirts of developing areas of town as contributing factors towards closing the doors.
“This place has done more than its share in feeding the community,” Edison said. “If you let the people know that you are destitute and that you needed something to eat, they’d feed you,” Edison said, adding that the restaurant was a church first and foremost.
Edison will continue to serve as Reverend at New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, as he has for the past 23 years.
When asked if he may come back to the restaurant in the future, Edison can only shake his head with a laugh, followed by the reiterated, “I don’t know.” Nothing is certain, and he is hoping that someone will step up to continue the tradition of Church’s BBQ. Until then, he plans on spending his time “fishin’ and sleepin’.”
“I’m sad to see it closing, after so many years … If I was hearing this story from someone else, I couldn’t imagine that Church BBQ is closing its doors, but you just have to face reality,” Edison said.