HARRISBURG — Eleven years ago, Mike Whiteley was stocking shelves with a forklift on an overnight shift at Sam's Club when he met Brandon Millikan, who was working at his first real job.
After Millikan overheard Whiteley talking in a break room at work about wanting to open a barbecue place, he strolled over and struck up a conversation with him about the idea of starting a restaurant.
"In that short amount of time, he convinced me," Millikan said. "I was like 'Hey, let's do it.'"
Two years later, the two men — Whiteley, 43, with little restaurant experience and Millikan, 37, with none — decided to leave their jobs at Sam's Club and open a restaurant. The two pals came up with the recipes and created the menu together, though Whiteley is the owner.
The result of their efforts is Lonnie Ray's, one of the most popular barbecue joints in mid-Missouri, judging by comments from barbecue enthusiasts posted on business directories like Yelp and UrbanSpoon.
The restaurant will celebrate 10 years in business next year. It sits alongside one of the two main streets in Harrisburg, population 272, between an auto service shop and a small apartment building.
A vending machine down the street dispenses root beers for 65 cents. Local children ride their bikes, some still equipped with training wheels, past old white churches with peeling paint and call "Hi!" to everyone walking past. The town's too small for a chain restaurant, too authentically country to tolerate a mediocre barbecue restaurant.
It's just Millikan and Whiteley who cook the food, assemble plates, and run the cash register. Occasionally, a friend will come in to help on the weekends when they get really busy. The idea of running his own small business instead of being part of a large corporate chain meant everything to Whiteley, who'd done that kind of work.
"I saw the corporate way to do it, and I saw the family-owned way to do it," Whiteley said. "And the family-owned way to do it was the way to go."
"What I learned was a lot of times you don't want to have people that you're involved with who are just coming to work for money or a check," he said. "You want people who are dedicated and passionate about what you're doing. (Millikan) fits that bill perfectly."
The two spend more than 12 hours a day working side by side. They cook without even speaking to each other — knowing what the other person needs and how to help and where to be and what to do. But when there's time to talk, they finish each other's sentences, nod emphatically as the other speaks, and pepper each other's sentences with affirmations.
Because it's just the two of them, they also serve, toting hot plates filled with barbecue, deep-fried corn on the cob, baked beans and coleslaw to their intended tables, usually without dropping a single baked bean.
The right pairing
Whiteley went to MU and worked at bars and chain restaurants while he was a student. When he graduated in 1996, he left the restaurant business and got a job related to his interdisciplinary degree in psychology, sociology and educational psychology. But in the back of his mind, he said, was the idea of one day owning his own restaurant.
Around 2003, he hit the top of the ladder at his day job working as a youth specialist for the state and started thinking about getting back to cooking.
Whiteley took the job at Sam's Club to work nights and free up his days to plan for his future restaurant. While working his overnight shifts, he paid attention to the prices of all the materials he was shelving, calculating in his head how much he would need to spend on raw ingredients.
During the day, he would go to auctions to find inexpensive equipment he would need in a restaurant. He started assembling the ingredients: booths from Longhorn Steakhouse, a three-door refrigerator from a church in Moberly, more seating from secondhand stores. All he needed now was the building and the people.
The last part was key. He knew he could do it, he said, if he could find the right people to work with him.
Enter Brandon Millikan in the Sam's Club break room.
Lonnie Ray's has, on occasion, had employees. But Millikan and Whiteley gave up on that.
"Over time we've had people come and go, but he's always been here. I can count on that guy," Whiteley said of Millikan.
"And I can count on him," said Millikan, smiling.
There's another reason for keeping strangers out of the kitchen: That's where the secrets are.
Creating the menu
The creaky front door of Lonnie Ray's officially closes at 8 p.m., but most seasoned customers know to come in earlier because the men sell out of food several times a week.
Their customers come from the Columbia area and much father away — even Texas — if the testimony on Yelp and UrbanSpoon is any indication. Beef brisket and the Gee Wilikers sandwich, a gigantic slab of smoked bologna on a bun piled high with melted pepper jack cheese, pickles, coleslaw and onion rings, seem to earn especially high praise from people who declare themselves to be barbecue aficionados.
The offerings change without notice and are written in black marker on a piece of torn butcher paper that hangs in each of the seven booths in the restaurant and features classics like pulled pork sandwiches and ribs.
But depending on the day that you come in, you might also see candied Brussels sprouts or pulled pork nachos on the menu. On the weekend, there might be one of Millikan's sister's famous homemade desserts on offer.
"Through messing around and goofing off, you come up with some different things." Whiteley said.
"Like, maybe today when we're hungry, we'll be like, 'Hey, let's try to make something,'" Millikan said. "We'll start doing it, and try something out and we will think, hey this is good, what else can we add to it? And we will go from there."
They have a tester in neighbor Kerry Pudenz, who runs Ken's Repair Shop next to Lonnie Ray's and lives in Harrisburg. Once a week at least, he's a customer. Whenever Millikan and Whiteley feel like they need feedback, they walk over with something they want Pudenz to taste, often something new they've concocted.
"They say, 'Hey, try this,'" Pudenz said. "We talk about the good and the bad, and I put my vote in, but I don't think I've ever had anything that wasn't pretty good."
He likes the business being in Harrisburg because it gets people into town, he said.
Almost a decade into the restaurant business, the former novices have created a barbecue destination out of a small, unassuming white building with "BBQ" hand-painted in red above the front door.
Whiteley said that the restaurant has tripled or quadrupled its sales since it opened in 2004.
"The first two years were hard, building up from nothing," Whiteley said. "The last four years it has really picked up."
Now, Whiteley said, people who have been to Lonnie Ray's recognize him when he goes places around mid-Missouri.
It's been a lot of work, but then barbecuing is labor intensive. At least one of their smokers is constantly on in the summer heat, slowly infusing the meat with whatever Millikan and Whiteley have under the hood (they won't tell). They're on their feet for long, hot hours, and Whiteley said he hasn't had a vacation since Lonnie Ray's started smoking. But they say they enjoy it.
"It's really hard work, but we don't call it hard work," Millikan said. For us, it's fun."
"You don't want to get into this business and then not like what you do," Whiteley said. "The fame, fortune, whatever, that's all secondary because the primary thing is No. 1, you love what you do, and No. 2, you're doing something you're proud of."
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.