By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
MIZPAH â€“ Some traditions never change, but some get better and better.
In his first summer starting anew from the location long known as Uncle Dewey’s BBQ Pavilion and Kettle Fish, the Mays Landing native for the past month has started his new tradition as Rick’s Backyard Barbecue and Grill.
Opening a business with a worldwide pandemic in play was not part of the plan. But Gray and his crew made the best of it, donning masks in the kitchen and ignoring the heat while they cook barbecue staples of ribs and brisket along with fried fish. Most customers came equipped with their own mask and stood in line six feet apart to make sure they could get some of the delicious fare.
The popular establishment has been around for more than 20 years along Route 40 between Atlantic City and Philadelphia is open for the season Saturdays from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
While coronavirus restrictions still have indoor restaurants doing takeout, Gray’s outdoor setup has allowed customers to dine-in â€“ a rarity for coronavirus restrictions â€“ as long as families and individual abide by social distancing rules.
That did not discourage Tryone Newman Sr. and his family and friends Dan Bradley Sr., Raevan Worthington and Natasha Bowens. Newman said he has known Gray “since he was a baby” and knew he was in for a great meal once he sat down.
Rick’s Backyard Barbecue and Grill, 6931 Route 40, Mizpah
Phone Number: 609-476-4040
“I was coming here since it was Uncle Dewey,” Newman said. “This is like ‘great.’ This is like down home food.”
Bradley Sr. said Rick’s Backyard is the best of “Down South barbeque.” It’s like finger-licking good.”
“This is my first time up here so I wanted to come up here and support him,” Bradley said. “Talk trash, old times, stuff like that. This is a landmark. You’ve got good food and good company right here. If you’re going to or from the shore, you’ve got to stop through. It’s real convenient.”
Richard Lindsey brought a friend Joseph Cobb along for a leisurely afternoon out. He said he has known Gray’s family since Gray played high school football at nearby Oakcrest High School.
“I didn’t like him much at Oakcrest because he was a heck of a football player and they use to always beat Vineland, where I worked,” Lindsey said with a laugh. “I’ve been coming out there 15 years. You always saw a lot of car out here before the virus. I’m glad are starting to return to normal so we can get out because it wasn’t any fun being shut in. He told me he would be open Saturday and I said ‘I’ll see you then.”
Khalil Shakur said he wanted to stop by Rick’s to support an African-American business and he brought his brother along with him.
“My brother said there’s good food here and he was hungry,” Azali Kush said with a laugh Saturday. “I’ve never been here before because I didn’t know about it. I would have come here if I would have known about it. It’s nice setup. I’ll be back.
“They can stay, but have to maintain a six-foot distance,” Gray told Front Runner New Jersey this week. “Families can sit together without worrying about the restrictions with on mask. I did open up the back a little bit and put tables out and people have been coming and sitting back in that open area.”
For Gray, getting open was the biggest challenge. First he had to upgrade the old Uncle Dewey’s facility to new Hamilton Township codes. Then there was a meat shortage because of the coronavirus, leaving Gray to secure his vendors.
“The hardest part of the business so far was just getting open because of the virus,” Gray said. “When we first opened, we kept running out of everything. I got some different vendors and we’re in good shape now.”
Gray knows the lay of the land. His parents, both from the Carolinas, settled into Mays Landing when he was young. A graduate of local Oakcrest High School, Gray refers to himself as a “big country boy.” In fact he bonded with Dewey Johnson, the former old owner of the local over hunting.
Now, Gray has his own style and menu at Rick’s Backyard. First he added deep fryers and along with classic barbecue staples, he is serving shrimp baskets and friend chicken wings. He even added fried pork chops to the menu.
When ask what has been the biggest hit so far?
“The fish,” Gray said with a laugh. “They’ve been killing us with the whiting fish. They’ve been out of this world for it. The second item has been the chicken wings.”
Gray said coronavirus restrictions has restaurant operating at limited hours that he would like to expand once they are lifted. His fulltime job as a NJ Transit bus driver, though, has kept him from expanding to Fridays. He said, though, that is something he wants to do soon.
“It’s hard because I still have my fulltime job,” Gray said. “I’m trying to get some cooks who can cook for me on Friday so we can open a few hour then. We’re going to have to open on Friday when the weather’s good.”
Gray said he added port-a-potties at the location and hopes to open up full-serves restrooms by next year.
Gray, who admits he’s not a talker, perked up when he talked about the future of his public barbecuing future.
“It all takes a little bit of time,” Gray said. “We want to stay consistent. Once people get that taste that’s what they expect when they stop by, so we have to be consistent with everything. I’ve got a whole new staff, so that’s been a challenge for we’re staying on top of it.”
When Rick’s Backyard wrap up their first season? If Gray had his choice, he wouldn’t.
“I’m a late bloomer,” he said with a laugh. “We’ll close October or November, depending on the weather. I plan on staying open as long as I can. Last year, I think we would have stayed open all year because we didn’t get any snow and it didn’t get that cold. So I’m looking at that.”
For past Uncle Dewey patrons, Rick’s Backyard is converting the masses and probably won’t complain if he stayed open a little longer.
Rick’s Backyard Barbecue and Grill is located at 6931 U.S. 40 in Mizpah. Phone number is (609) 476-4040.
All photos by Meredith Winner, Mer-Made Photography
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