By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
MIZPAH – Rick Gray had to overcome a lot in his first year as the ultimate grill master at Rick’s Backyard Barbecue and Grill on Route 40 in Atlantic County, but judging from his overflow crowd Saturday, he hit a home run during his first year in business.
Gray closed out the 2020 season Saturday at the outdoor restaurant with his inaugural Pig and Beef Roast. Gray purchased the popular barbecue spot from Dewey and Sharon Johnson last year. Gray, though, had to overcome the coronavirus pandemic and a difficult economic along with being a freshman business owner.
Despite that, cars lined the busy Route 40 when they could not find parking space in the establishment’s parking lot and auxiliary lot. It was near (a socially-distanced) standing-room-only at the roofed outdoor table areas were music was played and customers flowed in and out throughout the day to enjoy some of Gray’s greatest hits – barbecue, brisket, chicken, catfish, etc.
The smell of the mouth-watering barbecue hits you in the parking lot and alongside Route 40 – if not sooner. It’s been that aroma that have made speeding vehicles take a double take and double back to the homey, low-key wooded restaurant.
Growing Business During Pandemic
“Everything’s going well,” Gray said during a brief break from the barbecue pit Saturday. “It turned out real nice. It’s been a tough year coming out the box not knowing the business well and then the coronavirus on top of that, but we survived it. Everybody’s enjoying themselves and we’ll do it all again next year.”
Gray said, though, he is not completely going away. He said he will maintain a catering business to keep customers happy until he opens up the Mizpah location again. He said he is currently targeting the second weekend in April.
Gray said he learned a lot during his first year, including how much food to order for his hungry clientele.
“I was trying not to over-order and not to over-cook,” Gray said of his “good” problem of serving everyone who comes to the grill. “It was a hard thing to judge and trying to do the best I can. Yes, I ran out of food a lot, but that’s what I’ve learned. I’ve learned how much to order for each day.”
Drawing Customers and Fans From All Over
The buffet line for Rick’s Backyard’s final day bustled with business all day long, whether they stayed and ate in accordance to social distancing and mask rules. Many, though, where happy with take out, like Margate couple Dave and Christine Nagle and daughter-in-law Jenni.
“We had it once before and it was great,” Dave Nagle said. “Coming out here is a great way to end the season. Somebody brought it to us for takeout and we tried it then. It was great. That’s why we’re here.”
Jenni Nagle added: “It’s a great way to support a local business. It would tell people that [the food] is worth the drive.”
Old Friends Reunite
Along with newcomers like the Nagles, Gray was surrounded by old friends. A former local high school football star at Oakcrest High School, some of Gray’s former teammates enjoyed the barbecue and fellowship.
“We grew up with him and he was about two years behind us,” said Mike Nelson, who sat under the shelters with Hector Alvarez and other members of the 1984-85 Oakcrest football team for a reunion. “We are just old-timers sitting here helping him out. I’m not surprised by his success. I’m already looking forward to him opening again next year.”
Alvarez said Gray always had a knack of bringing people together since high school and he was not surprised by his success as well.
“And the food is great, too,” Alvarez said. “The crowd here says that he’s got a lot of friends and family that love him. It nice to seeing Blacks, Whites, Hispanics sitting here being just what we are, Americans.”
Andre Clements, a teacher and coach at Mainland High School, said he has been a friend of the family and has long been a fan of Gray’s cooking skills.
“I usually come out here to support him once business dies down at the end of the day,” Clements said. “He’s doing something positive for the community. That’s what it’s all about. When you do that, people will always be out to support you. This is just a great chance to relax and get comfortable. We haven’t had a lot of that this year.”
Supporting Black Businesses
Shawn Wright, who host a radio show at Stockton University, attended the Pig and Beef roast with Leroy Bowe, the one of the deejays for the event. Wright and Bowe’s radio show, WEREPWLFR91.7FM offers Urban Alternative shows available on WLFR 91.7 FM on the campus.
Bowe, also known as DJ Bowe, was spinning music with Ms. DJ G’ Style at the back of the second shelter, adding to the festive mood of the event.
“When I heard Dewey had retired, I was happy that another black businessman had bought it and decided to keep it going,” Wright said. “I’m all about supporting black business. It’s a great location. The food is great and he kept up with the tradition of Dewey’s. It’s a good atmosphere and a nice place for us to get together and enjoy good food and music.”
Wright said the large crowd “validates that something like this is needed. It’s great for something people to do in the pandemic. People don’t have a lot of options. This outdoor atmosphere allows the ability for people to come together safely and take a moment to forget about the stress and just relax.”
Hassan Young said he has known Gray for 40 years while growing up in Mays Landing. He said he is proud of what Gray has done with the business.
“He’s going to be a mainstay,” Young said. “He’s going to be here a long time. The barbecue chicken is great. The ribs are to die for. He will personally cook me hot sausages. That’s nice. It’s a great, hometown environment.”
Tyrone Russell helped Gray and his crew pass out tickets for the buffet. He has patronized since Dewey Johnson cooked there, but admitted with Gray, there is a “different vibe.”
“I’m here all the time giving him a hand,” Russell said. “This has been a tremendous response. The additional parking lot is packed. There is a different crowd of people that have come out to support Rick in his first year.”
Gray said he will have a few menu surprises next year, like adding Gyro dishes for those who don’t like to eat chicken or ribs. He said he will continue to open on Fridays next year as well, which was a new day and time for the location.
But not even the coronavirus could dampen Gray’s spirits about next year and beyond.
“I’m just trying to do the best I can,” Gray said.
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