Okie Dokies Smokehouse is still truckin' 10 years later

Fred McCormick

In 1999, before the idea of opening Okie Dokies Smokehouse entered his mind, Steve Dunning was hauling his food truck - affectionately known as The Red Wagon - around Western North Carolina, serving slow-cooked barbecue. Almost two decades later his mobile operation, which still includes the Red Wagon, has expanded and his Swannanoa-based restaurant has gained notoriety for its traditional barbecue and sides. The Black Mountain News talked to Dunning during a Wednesday lunch rush about Okie Dokies, which turns 10 this year.

The Black Mountain News: Food trucks are everywhere these days but you are somewhat of a pioneer locally, how did that you get into the business all those years ago?

Steve Dunning: That's part of our history here. In the mid-1990s I was looking at opening up a sandwich shop in the Asheville area. A guy I knew was opening a barbecue place and I started working with him a couple of months before it opened. A couple years into it he brought up a trailer from Texas and started selling barbecue on the side of the road and it worked. He started thinking that could be a business of its own and I told him I would be the guinea pig to see if that could work. I bought my own trailer, The Red Wagon, and I went out totally on my own in 1999 after he decided to retire from the restaurant business.

Steve Dunning still takes The Red Wagon to Burnsville every week, as he has for 16 years, to serve some of his "very loyal customers" there.

BMN: What was going on with the food truck scene back then?

Dunning: Nothing. I'll go out on a limb and say there were maybe three or four back then that you would bump into occasionally, but nothing like what's going on now. Most of us back then would do festivals and craft shows, which we still do now, but it was completely different then.

BMN: With a successful food truck operation going how did Okie Dokies Smokehouse come to be?

Dunning: We were doing pretty well after the first three or four years between the food truck and catering. We decided we needed a location to expand the catering business, because we had been working out of the shop at the Black Mountain Golf Course and we outgrew that kitchen. We were initially going to use the basement of this building as a catering kitchen because there was a cafe upstairs. The place upstairs decided to move out and at that point we were like "well, what the heck," and Okie Dokies was born.

The Red Wagon daily lunch special at Okie Dokies Smokehouse features a pulled pork barbecue sandwich with baked beans, coleslaw and chips. It honors the barbecue restaurant's food truck roots.

BMN: How did you come up with the name?

Dunning: It's really just something my wife and I have always said in daily conversation. Picking a name was kind of a process, I will say that. We already had our pig logo and we knew we wanted to use it in the name, we started looking and kept coming back to Okie Dokies because the letter O gave us a chance to do that. Our old catering business had a pretty generic name and nobody every remembered the name and we always said if we ever had our own restaurant then we'd name it something people couldn't forget.

BMN: According to your website (okiedokiesbbq.coom) Okie Dokes is "committed to cooking traditional barbecue," what does that mean?

Dunning: First and foremost, 100 percent wood-fired pit. To me that's the biggest key. And then time, the whole low and slow idea. Cook the meat at a low temperature over a long period of time. We cook overnight and anywhere from 14-18 hours. When you're cooking with fire like that there are a lot of different factors.

One of around 20 employees at Okie Dokies Smokehouse, Jose keeps the fire going in the smoker, which can hold up to 1,000 pounds of meat, according to owner Steve Dunning.

BMN: You guys must go through quite a bit of wood cooking over a fire for that long six days a week?

Dunning: We do. We go through about a cord (128 cubic feet by volume) of wood per week.

BMN: Okie Dokies is not only known for its slow-cooked meats, some of the sides have become quite popular as well over the years as well, right?

Dunning: My wife spent a lot of time in Mississippi as a kid and fried pickles were pretty popular down there. We always told ourselves if we ever opened a restaurant we were going to have fried pickles. We researched recipes and came up with a pretty good technique and style and they've really caught on. I personally like to take credit for us being the first ones with fried pickles around here because I don't know of anyone in the Asheville area that was doing fried pickles when we started.

BMN: Recipes for your jalapeno hush puppies and fried pickles were featured in Southern Living Off the Eaten Path: Favorite Southern Dives and 150 Recipes that Made Them Famous, published in 2011, how did it feel to be recognized for more than your signature barbecue?

Dunning: It was great to be recognized for those, it's important to have good sides. It would be awesome to be just known for great barbecue but in the restaurant business you have to have a little bit more. I've always been careful to not get too crazy with the menu because we are a barbecue joint, that's what I've always wanted to be and that's what I'll always want to be.

BMN: Okie Dokies remains true to its food truck roots, what are your mobile operations like?

Dunning: The original Red Wagon is still on the road, I'll never get rid of it. We were using this up until we bought the black truck, which is the Oink Joint, because we were doing bigger festivals and needed more space. It has a grill on the back we can use. Last year we bought a new truck, it's a big box truck, and I'm having it wrapped and we're hoping to have that on the road soon.