Graham Simmons’ home is full of the right smells: Wafting smoke, meats covered in homemade rubs and sauces and Southern cooking.
Those smells have followed Simmons and his wife, Hayden, in their moves around Gainesville as the couple turned backyard barbecuing into a passion.
That smoke and those smells now fill another area in Gainesville: midtown, where Graham and Hayden Simmons are reviving the shuttered Big Bear Cafe to bring the city its newest barbecue place.
Simmons started Foothills Barbecue as a catering operation in December. He called it a “passion project” at the time, but it’s quickly turned into more — the Simmons family is on the edge of opening a fully fledged restaurant.
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On Saturday, Oct. 6, Simmons will host a grand opening of his shop, which he promises will be a new direction for Gainesville barbecue. Tap It and Imperial Records will be there to lend a hand at the old Big Bear Cafe location at 893 Main St. SW. The restaurant will be open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday each week thereafter.
“We want to be known as ‘experimental barbecue’ because our menu is so simple,” Simmons said. “We want the draw to be from the specials we’re doing that day. So we want to do the Sichuan-style beef plate, the pistachio-dusted pork spare ribs, brisket mac and cheese. There’s so many things that we want to do, and we want people to be able to come here and never have to eat the same thing twice.”
For Simmons, barbecue has always been a pastime. He’s been around it since he was young, smoking meats at home with his father, Scott.
Simmons remembers taking a trip to Austin, Texas, with him when he was just 14 years old, where they saw country singer Pat Greene in concert and ate “nothing other than barbecue.”
Now, he’s bringing that love of Texas barbecue back to Gainesville — horns and all.
“In Texas, beef is king,” Simmons said. “To me, there’s nothing more hearty than a couple slices of fatty brisket — there’s just nothing better.”
So, at Foothills, that’s what diners will get. While Simmons will stick with the traditional Southern pork barbecue, he’ll be adding some of what he remembers so fondly from that trip he took years ago.
“It’s going to be a nice mixture of beef and pork,” Simmons said. “Because Georgia barbecue is so much pork, I’m just trying to introduce people to some really good brisket.”
Bringing something new to Gainesville is Simmons’ main goal. Apart from Texas-style, Simmons wants to be known as Appalachian-style barbecue, too. It’s something he said is a completely new concept and will give him freedom to try different things.
That doesn’t mean everything about Foothills has to be different, though. Fans of ol’ Big Bear will find the bones of their old haunt still around in Foothills Barbecue, from the booths and tables to even some of the kitchen equipment.
The restaurant has been scrubbed, painted and re-decorated to fit Foothills’ style, but it still has that smooth, well-used feel of a classic barbecue restaurant.
“Big Bear Cafe … was a Gainesville staple,” Hayden Simmons said. “I mean, it’s amazing the amount of people that have told us they ate here every single morning: attorneys, judges, doctors.”
Now, Simmons and his wife are hoping customers old and new will stop by Foothills to try the unique style of barbecue it’s bringing to an already busy market.
“There’s so many flavors, so many local flavors that people don’t experiment with, that I think can add something awesome to something as simple as putting a piece of meat over an open fire, and have that smoke just run over it and all the flavors kind of come together,” Simmons said.
He never expected to open a restaurant this soon.
He didn’t have any experience, and was planning to simply cater events until he was more comfortable and ready for a larger operation. But the Big Bear location was too good to pass up and there were too many signs that convinced him to commit.
“Truthfully, I was scared,” Simmons said.
“Our lack of experience in the restaurant business, I think, has worked in our favor,” his wife added. “We have been so naive that I think if we really knew what it would take, we would not have done it.”
Even without that restaurant experience, Simmons has plenty of experimentation under his belt and a drive to make customers happy.
He’s constantly taste-testing at home, and it’s usually done with a crowd. There’s always a party at the Simmons household.
“It’s something that’s a lot of fun to me,” Simmons said. “I feel like when you’re cooking a lot, and doing the same mundane thing, it gets old and tiring, and that's not what cooking is about.”
Entertaining for a variety of people gives him the chance to tweak his recipes — a little less sugar here, a new spice combination there — and hone his flavor.
He said with Foothills, he wants to share that love of barbecue and flavor with the whole community. And with Gainesville’s growing population, he sees the city becoming one of the major places to visit in Georgia — he wants to be a part of that. Simmons is hoping Foothills becomes a midtown destination people travel from Atlanta and beyond to try.
His only problem, based off the response he’s had during the months of doing small catering events and a soft opening, is being unprepared to cope with demand. He said he’s afraid the business is going to take off quicker than he anticipates. With his roomy space in midtown, though, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Even if it is, Simmons said it’s a problem he’s happy to have.
“Nothing fuels a person like some really good feedback,” Simmons said. “It’s really great to have people call or text you, people you do not know, and say they just had some of the best barbecue they’ve had in their lives and it just came from you.”
Foothills Barbecue Grand Opening
Where: 893 Main St. SW, Gainesville
When: Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6More info: Facebook