Photography by Eliesa Johnson
Ron Whyte and Bob Edmond, owners of Big Daddy's Old Fashinoed Barbeque
Bob Edmond and Ron Whyte
What’s the most significant old-school barbecue landmark in St. Paul? It’s got to be Big Daddy’s Old Fashioned Barbeque at University and Dale, home of the state’s best beef ribs and our sole living barbecue tie to long-lost Rondo Avenue. Rondo was replaced by Interstate 94 in the 1960s, shattering the most important African American neighborhood in St. Paul and displacing some 70 businesses from neighborhoods like Oatmeal Hill and Cornmeal Valley. Today, we can read about Rondo in civil rights pioneer Roy Wilkins’s memoir about growing up in Rondo, which mentions the “riot of warm colors, feelings, and sounds” from the tree-lined streets, or in Evelyn Fairbanks’s memoir Days of Rondo, which mentions “tippling houses” such as Good Daddy’s. But what if you want to taste those traditions? Big Daddy’s is your best bet.
Big Daddy’s has been around since the 1980s in various forms. It’s the product of three good friends—two perfectionists and one life of the party—who started cooking together for fun. Two of the friends, Ron Whyte (perfectionist) and Gene Sampson (life of the party), grew up together in Kentucky. The other perfectionist, Bob Edmond, hails from Georgia, land of dads who insist you do things the right way or not at all. “If you’re gonna do it, you’re not gonna half do it,” explains Edmond, who is one of the two running the project today (Sampson has returned back to the South). “I do that in my cooking. I do that in my cleaning. It requires the same amount of energy most of the time to do things right, so do it right.”
Whyte and Edmond ended up in Minnesota for various jobs in the mid-1980s, Whyte at Honeywell and Edmond at Control Data. Finding themselves in a snowy and lonely land with the always-fun Sampson, an expert tale spinner and joke teller, the three got together on weekends to barbecue. Whyte drove a best-practices mindset. He was in charge of production control of supply chain at Honeywell, and whenever the friends got through one batch of barbecue, he’d come up with a slight adjustment that would make it better the next time. “I need that accomplishment at the end of the day,” says Whyte. Edmond kept the moral focus on raising the bar so that day after day they would be better barbecuers: “It was a challenge to myself. I felt we had something good, and I’ve had barbecue in a lot of places, but I wanted to see what we have here.”
People would find us. They'd say, 'I just followed the smell!' — Bob Edmond
As the years passed, the trio grilled in different festivals and started getting locally famous. “That was the beginning of our gypsy days,” Edmond laughs. “People would find us. They’d say, ‘I just followed the smell!’” The smell and the meat made such a good impression that they were invited to barbecue on the lot of St. Paul legend Tiger Jack Rosenbloom. Tiger Jack was a St. Paul celebrity, a boxer in the 1920s and ’30s, and then the proprietor of a corner store that was literally the one and only business to remain after Rondo’s destruction. (The site is on the northeast corner of Dale and University, but his original storefront is now in the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.) For many years, the three Big Daddy friends barbecued with Tiger Jack on the very last remaining slice of old Rondo.
The trio’s leap from the world of passionate amateurs to professional cooking came about because of another legendary figure in St. Paul’s African American community, Jim Mann. Mann was one of the first few African American police officers in St. Paul and the owner of a famed barbecue spot called the Hickory Stick. Mann tasted the Big Daddy barbecue and told them they were really good, professionally good, and should enter some competitions. They did, and they won prizes at contests like the old Rib Fest, Jim Mann Fest, and Rondo Days. Next came brick-and-mortar restaurants, finally leading to this spot on University and Dale.
What’s the flavor of that deep Minnesota history? To experience it, get the Flintstone beef ribs, which Whyte and Edmond labored on for many years, perfecting the cut, the seasonings, and the service (cut to order, and never before), and even designing and welding their own special racks that allow the hardwood smoke to penetrate the beef until it’s tender and chewy and ultra beefy. Imagine that exquisite millimeter of char on a great steak, multiplied a thousand-fold; that’s the Big Daddy Flintstone beef rib. You’ve never tasted anything like it. It’s the taste of deep Minnesota barbecue, the deepest we have. Is it the taste equivalent of Roy Wilkins’s poetic remembrances, the riot of warm feelings of Rondo? It’s definitely the taste of lifelong friendship, united by smoke and meat.