Story and Photos by Jennifer Kornegay
I once read that the more active and human-like the pig is on a barbecue joint’s sign, the better the ‘cue you’ll find there. The pig helping point people to Pruett’s Bar-B-Q in Gadsden appears to have just returned from catching a catfish as big as he is, while wearing cutoff overalls and smoking a pipe. If the above assertion holds any truth, then the barbecue at this longstanding spot fronting busy Rainbow Drive should be delicious.
Good news: It is. Fourteen hours cooking in the pit renders moist, chopped pork infused with a modest hardwood smoke that balances nicely with Pruett’s thin, tangy and slightly sweet sauce and ribs that are “teeth-not-necessary” tender. According to owner Stan Pruett, these two items are the best sellers. “We go through approximately 4,000 pounds of pork each week,” he says. And Pruett’s serves beef and chicken barbecue, too.
But many Pruett’s loyalists are drawn by the restaurant’s non-barbecue items. The turkey sandwich (a thick slice of smoked bird breast with crisp lettuce and tomato) is popular. Golden-fried fillets of flaky catfish (all farm raised) are beloved. Fat, juicy chicken fingers enrobed in a heavy but crunchy crust get high ratings too. (Insiders often indulge in a delight not on the menu, a grilled cheese on Texas toast with nuggets of chopped-up chicken finger studding the melty insides.)
The sweet potato fluff (tasty tubers cooked down, whipped smooth and embellished with a copious amount of brown sugar) is served as a side but is also (appropriately) featured under the menu’s dessert section and has earned a coveted place on the “100 Alabama Dishes to Eat Before You Die” list. And most patrons can’t leave without a wide wedge of lemon icebox or rich chocolate fudge pie.
All of Pruett’s recipes come from Stan’s family, which has been a fixture in Northeast Alabama’s dining scene for decades. “I was born into this, and we make our own sauce and everything is homemade, just like always,” Stan says. His parents owned and operated the now-closed barbecue joints Touchdown in Oxford and then Goal Post in Anniston. Betty’s BBQ in Anniston is run by Stan’s younger sister and named for his mom. Following in his family’s smoke trail, he opened Pruett’s in 1976.
For regulars, Pruett’s is more than a place to get fed. They sit at the red- or black-checkered tables in the noisy dining room they’ve been frequenting for years, where they get served their favorite dishes from friendly waitresses who are like family. “We’ve got staff who’ve been with us for more than 20 years, and we’ve just got a good crew here,” Stan says.
They keep coming to the spot where they swap news and jokes and stories with friends between every bite. “We’re a gathering place for the city, and there’s a sense of community in here,” says Christy Pruett, Stan’s ex-wife who still works at the restaurant. Stan elaborates on this point: “There are so many people who came here as kids and now bring their own kids in,” he says. “We’re kinda a tradition for a lot of people.”
Like restaurants of all kinds and sizes across the country, the Pruett’s tradition was threatened last year, with shutdowns and restrictions due to COVID-19 making an already tough business even tougher. But thanks to plenty of determination and a pinch of luck — like already having a well-run drive-thru called Lil’ Pruett’s right next door — Pruett’s survived the worst of the pandemic. “It was never as bad as we first feared,” Stan says, adding, “We feel real fortunate to have stayed as busy as we did, but I think it because our food is consistent, and people have come to rely on us being here.”
Stan may call his restaurant a tradition, but many Gadsden residents would tell you Pruett’s is more than that; it’s a city landmark, and that’s a designation that makes Stan smile even on the hardest, longest days. “This business is a lot of work, and I’ve been doing it for 45 years,” he says. “But it’s a really good feeling to know that what we are doing matters to so many people. I like that.”
1617 Rainbow Drive
Gadsden, AL 35901
Hours, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.,
Monday through Saturday