Ribs on notice: the That BBQ Joint controversy
Two writers consider a restaurant's over-the-top struggles with its East Side neighbors. | By Michael Penn II, Scott Gordon
Over the past few months, That BBQ Joint at 901 Williamson Street has been in a dispute with several neighbors who claim the restaurant's meat smoker is too smelly and noisy. Previous reporting from Isthmus and The Capital Times provides some helpful background, but a crucial piece of context is that it pits a minority-owned business against a neighborhood of well-off and largely white homeowners. Tone Madison writers Michael Penn II and Scott Gordon decided to trade some notes to unpack what's bugging them about all this. Penn previously wrote about the restaurant in his report on Madison's first-ever Black Restaurant Week.
Scott Gordon: Michael, I had lunch at That BBQ Joint the day after it hosted a Saturday-afternoon neighborhood meeting—as documented by in the Cap Times piece linked above—about barbecue smells. Owner/chef Clement Henriques told me the day of the meeting had been one of the restaurant's biggest sales days ever, and he generally seemed to be dealing with the issue in a more patient, positive manner than anyone had any right to expect. Now, for plenty outside Madison or even in Madison, this seems like a classic Madisonian tempest in a teapot. But to me it's troubling for two big reasons:
First, let's question the process. The Marquette Neighborhood Association, prompted by a small number of neighbor complaints, has gone to the city government and used That BBQ Joint's liquor license as leverage against the restaurant in an issue that has nothing to do with alcohol—specifically, MNA has asked the city to require the restaurant, as a condition of its liquor license, to hold monthly meetings about smell and noise complaints. (The restaurant only sells bottled beer, by the way.) To me that is extremely presumptuous and an abuse of the legal mechanisms of liquor licenses. And despite how slowly city government moves on most issues, it has been pretty swift to represent the concerns of a few people living in a neighborhood where the average home value is nearly $300,000 and rising. Banner sales day aside, what could reek more of white privilege than asking a black-owned business to close on a Saturday afternoon to do the labor of hearing white people complain?
Second, where are these complainants? They exist, alright, but sure are shy of attention or even being identified, while on the other hand Henriques has been pretty patient about serving as the public face of his business in this matter. In Joyce's report from the meeting, one of the complainants was quoted but declined to give Joyce his name. A Channel 3000 reporter went to the meeting and said that all the complainants left before he was able to talk to them. Additionally, according to some dramatic postings that were up in That BBQ Joint's front window a while back, the restaurant initially displayed complaints neighbors had submitted to the city, but redacted their names because the complainants said they felt "intimidated." These were public records, which you can see here. The complainants are using a public government process to put pressure on That BBQ Joint, but apparently would rather not make their case in a public way and stand behind it in a public way. The presumption of that is galling.
Michael Penn II: Starting and stopping at privilege is keeping the gloves on. This is outright racism. However small the context may feel, however minuscule the details may seem, it's tinted with the kind of racism that manipulates its systemic capability in the most egregious and unnecessary means to maintain an order that caters to the white, the upper-middle to wealthy class that can invest their time in such an action. Without being too presumptuous of these unnamed individuals, I can understand where some concerns with the smell of burning meat in a neighborhood are valid. Someone told the papers it's a quality of life issue since they identify as a vegan; being greeted with barbecue residue in the air extends beyond mere inconvenience at that point, no? If That BBQ Joint has excessive noise or excessive activity to accompany such a foul odor, these are valid concerns that can be amended through feedback between an establishment and its neighborhood in a public process, correct?
I don't see the necessity in placing such a high priority on restaurant fumes because it's a… restaurant? Not just any restaurant, but a wildly-successful Black-owned restaurant that serves communities all over the city every week with amazing food and amazing service? I've seen women old enough to be my grandmothers, a whole rugby team filthy from the scrum and gathered around the table, and definitely white folks from Marquette who partake in a weekend dinner as they see fit. If updating ventilation is an option people are willing to pitch in for, where does a liquor license fall in that solution? Why the impending jeopardy at the hands of nameless beings, threatening an entire business over a minor qualm?
That's the racism of the principle of the thing: MNA, like many housing associations or neighborhood watches, is comprised of that wealthier white Madison class, the most protected caste in the city. Madison revolves around the happiness of the $300,000 homeowners: it's why the city get listed in top places to live, it's what many from states abroad consider a symbol of making a good life to raise kids and pay taxes and die happily in Marquette or on Regent or in Monona by the water. It takes months of debacles to get the mayor to move on effectively addressing homelessness, that same mayor's discrediting a report exposing Madison's intense disparities across color and income, but a few white folks allot enough time to lobby over a fucking barbecue smell? Then say you feel threatened by people too busy running a business to retaliate against you?
Perhaps they care about these other issues as well, but the gesture in itself is another hawk of saliva in the faces of those who, you know, don't get to make those decisions. I mean the Madison populations that can't even get voter IDs, whose kids are pipelined to read four grades under, the families who deal with plants and food deserts and warehouses who don’t possess the political stronghold to get shit done expeditiously. It's environmental racism 101 and it's fucking disgusting.
Scott Gordon: The whole thing does seem puny and ironic, considering the fact that people of color disproportionately live near coal-fired power plants and other sources of pollution. But for affluent neighborhoods in Madison, living near a barbecue smoker or a small coffee-roasting operation is considered a hardship.
The dispute also reminds me of the absolutely hysterical process that took place last year when an equally small group of East Siders successfully pushed the city to enact new noise regulations on concerts in city parks. (MNA opposed that effort because it puts on the annual Waterfront Festival and Orton Park Fest.) The people living in one of the most desirable parts of a city sure seem to be picky about how much city they encounter—whether in the form of noise or smells or dealing with people different from themselves—and feel entitled to exercise control over that at the expense of others.
All of this is coming down on That BBQ Joint in spite of the fact that Henriques and company have gone about their business thoughtfully. They've massively improved and brightened their new-ish space on Willy Street. In the 10 years I've lived here, that location has been an OK convenience store and a mediocre Greek restaurant. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. Now it's a place that takes its food seriously and treats its customers well—often Henriques will pop out from the kitchen to ask people about their food, or to give out free samples of a new recipe he's been experimenting with. (Last time I was there he was giving people rib tips and oh my god.) It's a benefit to the neighborhood.
I'd like to be reasonable about the neighbors' concerns, but the benefits outweigh their discomfort. The neighbors and MNA may not see themselves as prejudiced or malicious or racist, but they're handling their concerns through a process where the business clearly had less economic clout and social capital from the start.
Michael Penn II: Wait, so you’re implying that neighborhood orgs like MNA can manipulate and reinvent the rules to exclude members of their community while protecting the sanctity of their own events? Scintillating. I’d say I’m surprised by how well Henriques and company seem to be taking this—especially with a sales day like the one their joint just had in spite of this—but I'm not that naive. It’s a damned if you do/damned if you don’t condition: to be Black and own anything in a white-dominated space, sometimes it’s the pettiest battles like this that’ll pile up over time to make someone fold or make a mistake. They’re not in the position to do either; no matter how much social capital they’ve built on food and service, or the literal capital necessary to secure and maintain a spot on Willy as is, it can’t end at good food and responsiveness to customer feedback. No, we need to threaten their liquor license with something that has nothing to do with it. We need to organize over barbecue scent, presenting such issue as a nuisance so large it requires town halls to talk it out.
The blame doesn’t fall solely on the backs of the few citizens who take such issue, but the systems we’ve elected that grants every passing fancy of their most lucrative and economically-mobile base with locomotive speed. Meanwhile, we’re ticketing homeless folks. Meanwhile, students of color still don’t feel safe, women don’t feel safe, we’re drowning in achievement gaps and wealth gaps… issues people like the MNA—apparently wielding such a swift organizing power in our city government—can truly lobby around and influence the same way they nitpick the fire rib spot down their street or the block party in their park.
Scott Gordon: What's missing here, no matter which angle you look at it from, is a failure to keep things in the bigger picture. The bigger picture of inequity, the bigger picture of our community having more profound issues to solve, the bigger picture of whether Madison wants to be a city or a sleepy small town. In the Channel 3000 story I linked above, one MNA board member waved off concerns about racism, saying "The neighborhood association is a group that covers Madison's most diverse neighborhood and we have worked with many local business owners who are people of color and other minorities and we have supported and hoped for the best for their businesses." To which I say, well, good for you, but keep a sense of proportion and don't mistake where we all fit in the broader pattern of American society. #LegalizeBrisket.