“Let’s offer something different every day and still keep the barbecue.”
By Allison Law
Heard’s BBQ, even with its location near the busy U.S. Highway 82 in Maplesville, can be easy to miss. But just wait till 11 a.m.; by then, loyal customers have checked the restaurant’s Facebook page to see what’s on the menu that day, and they’re ready to eat.
The menu changes daily, with a few mainstays: Barbecue pork is always served, as are barbecue loaded fries and some tasty sides.
Everything else, though, is subject to change, sometimes due to customer requests, sometimes just because that’s what owner Roman Heard feels like cooking that day. The menu varies widely: One day may feature classic soul food dishes like oxtails and collard greens; on another day, it’s fried catfish, served as fillets or as a po’ boy. Also on previous menus: smoked meat loaf, served as a plate or as a sandwich; smoked turkey or smoked chicken, served as sandwiches or as the protein on loaded fries; and club or fried green tomato sandwiches served on ciabatta bread. Ribs – what really put Heard’s on the map – are now a Saturday item, though they may show up on an unexpected weekday. Even Chinese food and a shrimp boil make occasional appearances.
“I don’t want to be handcuffed to barbecue every day,” Heard says. “There’s only 800 people in this town, and if you don’t want barbecue, you won’t come here. So I said, OK, let me rethink this business plan. Let’s offer something different every day and still keep the barbecue.”
And almost everything sells out, every day.
The first Saturday he opened in 2017, he sold ribs, chicken, pulled pork and smoked sausage, and “it just took off,” he says. At this small building behind a supermarket in Chilton County, he started with a “small Walmart grill” and very little money – “the only money I had was to pay the deposit on this building” – but also a lot of heart and direction from above.
“God knows what we need,” Heard says. He’s a cook and a restaurant owner but also a minister, and his story is peppered with references to divine intervention.
“God just blessed me, that’s all I can say. I know it sounds cliche,” he says. For him, it’s more than just words. “My heart has been conditioned to say, I just want to love on people. If I show you love, it’s going to come out in the food, and God’s blessing – what better food to eat than God’s blessing sprinkled on it? That’s just how I look at it.”
This is Heard’s second restaurant. With the first, he says, he was chasing a dream, and while he knew how to cook, he didn’t know the business side. And, he wasn’t doing it for the right reasons.
“I knew I was doing it for what I could gain, what I can buy. ‘I want to buy this nice vehicle, I want to show this off.’ It didn’t feel good at the time, but I’m glad God showed me, this is not how you do business, or how you stay in business.”
He lost everything with that first restaurant, and he moved his family in with his mom for a time, which was “a humbling experience.”
He went to work for a food distributor, delivering briskets and pork ribs to barbecue restaurants. He would talk with the owners about the restaurant business, soaking up all the advice he could.
He enjoyed the job delivering food to restaurants but felt the pull to get back into cooking for others. This time, he went a different route, utilizing social media and a sort of “pop up” type of food service. He would create Facebook events and announce he was selling ribs on a particular Saturday; customers were told to pre-order in the comments with a Thursday deadline, so he would know how many slabs to buy.
Come Saturday, he would go to the local park and cook slabs of ribs all morning. In classic small-town fashion, he saw no need for tickets and receipts; he knew all of the customers by name.
From there, he expanded into other foods, like catfish. But really, he cooks what he likes, and tries recipes out on his family. “If they like it, I feel like everybody (will) like it.”
A dream deferred
He also started catering on the side for friends and co-workers, even while working full time for the food distributor. “I would take orders during the day, and I would go home and cook all night. The next morning, I would wake up, go back to work, and I just looked forward to it. It was tiring, but I got more joy out of doing that than I did my actual job.”
He came home from work one day and his wife, Shakira, said the words most married folks dread: “We need to talk.” But she was concerned, not angry, and wanted to help Roman realize his dream.
“She said, ‘God is showing me that you need to be back in this full time.’ I told her no, I’m not going to put you and the kids through that again.” But after a couple of weeks of soul searching, Roman decided it was time to move forward, to again chase the dream he’d had, nine years after the first restaurant closed.
He hesitated to leave the food distributor, which had been a stable job, and one he enjoyed. One day, the company owner pulled him aside and said, “‘I know this is your dream, but I feel like you’re not going to pull the trigger.’ And I wasn’t. He said, ‘if you do that and it doesn’t work, your job is secure.’ That was one of those other things I needed to hear.”
Shakira continued in her job as a schoolteacher, but after their oldest son graduated from high school, she decided to retire to help Roman full time. She took over the bookkeping, which was never Roman’s calling. Their relationship in the restaurant works well: “She’s here, she sees (what’s needed), and she just flows in it.”
Now, Shakira does some cooking as well, including most of the sides and all the desserts. But, Roman says, “I don’t let anybody do the grilling.” And now they’ve branched out to bottle their barbecue sauce and dry rubs, which are sold at nearby stores.
The restaurant is mostly a to-go spot, with a small screened-in patio for those who want to sit down. But with no need for servers and a smaller overhead, the small space allows them to focus more on the food and invest back into the business.
And his newest investment is ready to roll. A bright yellow food truck has been decked out and is ready for community festivals, receptions, parties, you name it. Everything that’s served at the restaurant can be cooked and served right from the truck, Roman says.
At the end of this interview, Roman shows off the awards he’s won for his food – top-four finishes in the Bama’s Best contests, sponsored by the Alabama Farmers Federation, for his burgers, ribs and pulled pork.
For him, the recognition is nice, but there’s a greater reward. “God made it clear, this is going to be a blessing. To be in my hometown is even more of a blessing to where I can take care of people. I’m tied to this community.”