Tiny town home to a big dream for this barbecue pitmaster

Alabama Living Magazine

Story and photos by Allison Law

The exterior of the restaurant, which resembles a hunting lodge.

Jamie Lee Mitchell is not just the owner of the Alabama Rib Shack, his custom-built restaurant in tiny Gainesville, Alabama; he’s also the pitmaster, cook, gracious host and the biggest cheerleader for his hometown, nestled in a curve of the picturesque Tombigbee River in Sumter County.

He has a personality that fills the dining room of the lodge-like structure and spills out onto the patio, which is filled with picnic tables and shaded by weeping willows (his favorite plant). His energy is tremendous, and his dedication to this restaurant and this town is very real. 

Pulled pork, pigtails and three styles of ribs – St. Louis, baby back and Texas, along with macaroni and cheese and baked beans.

“This town” – he pats his chest – “it just means so much to me. I said, when I build this restaurant, I’m going to give Gainesville the best I got.”

One recent Sunday, he took a break – well, several, actually – from serving up pigtails and three kinds of ribs and jerk chicken to talk about starting a business, returning to his roots in rural west Alabama and how when you have a calling for something, you can’t question it. 

The after-church crowd and several out-of-towners who learned about his restaurant on social media flow in and out, and Jamie Lee (as he prefers to be called) pauses to greet customers every time the door opens. If he doesn’t know you by name, he probably will soon. “Welcome to the Alabama Rib Shack. Your first time here?” He escorts first-timers to the counter to talk about the menu; the interview will wait.

His hospitality is genuine, say bartenders Tata Giles and Nicole Boyd. “It’s his personality,” Giles says. “He’s a kind, giving person.”

Jamie Lee was intentional about every detail of his restaurant, from the materials used (such as the locally sourced wood used at the bar) to the time-tested menu items.

Hometown man

Jamie Lee grew up in Gainesville. His mom had him when she was 13; both he and his mom were adopted by an older couple, who he refers to as his grandparents. It was here that he developed a love for cooking; as the only child in the house, he was around his grandmother almost all the time. 

“The first dish I ever cooked was candied yams. She didn’t believe I cooked those. She thought it was the neighbor’s yams!”

He got to know his grandparents’ friends, and would ask them, how do you cook this or that? He’d write down the ingredients and instructions and put the recipes in a big scrapbook. Years later, he tweaked the measurements for his restaurant business, since – as so many good cooks do – his “teachers” would say, use a dash of this, a pinch of that. He had many years of trial and error tastings to get the flavors and precise measurements just right.

But he never went to culinary school. “This was all given to me from the universe,” he says.

His grandmother saw his potential. “She knew I was a smart kid. There was nothing I couldn’t do. Anything I put my mind to, I could do.” She thought he needed to leave Gainesville and gain some knowledge and exposure to another side of life, so at about age 18, he left for Boston. 

In Boston, he worked, married, started a family and – though he didn’t realize it – began the path that would bring him back to rural Alabama, and to the next chapter of his life. 

Though he was up north for more than 30 years, Gainesville was home, and “I never really left.” 

Up north, down South

He worked as a barber in Boston, but it wasn’t his true passion. “I knew I had a calling for this cooking,” he says. He started giving free cookouts on Sunday afternoons for friends on the big patio at his home. He says it cost him $300 every Sunday.

The friends didn’t realize that they were testers for Jamie Lee to try out his recipes. He would cook, give everyone a big plate, wait about 15 minutes and ask what they thought. He would make tweaks and adjustments according to their recommendations.

One of the friends from a cookout asked Jamie Lee to cater a baby shower, and asked specifically for buffalo wings. Another cookout guest was with the NAACP and asked him to cater an event. It grew from there – he catered for politicians, churches, City Hall. “It just went crazy. I would do a catering job for 300 out of my house. I don’t know how I did it.”

A few years ago, a friend of his grandmother’s died, and he came home to Alabama for her funeral. He brought his family with him. He owned the lot on which the Rib Shack now stands, but it was empty then. 

“I pull up, I always take a walk all along the property. I heard a voice. ‘Jamie Lee, this is where your restaurant need to be at.’ You know what I told the voice? I said, no way!

“I think it took that voice to really get my attention.”

After that, all signs seemed to point to Alabama Highway 116 – the road in Gainesville where the Rib Shack is today. He’d had a deal to open a restaurant in Boston at the time, but the contract expired. Then, he talked seriously to his family about coming home. 

Back in Boston, he asked his daughter, Jaymie, what did she think about him opening a restaurant in Alabama? “She said, ‘oh, it’s great,’ because she’s used to me saying stuff like that. But she knew I was serious.” He asked his wife, Stephanie, what she thought about putting his restaurant on the land in Gainesville. “She said, ‘when can we move?’”

He had blueprints of what is now Alabama Rib Shack in 30 days, and the foundation was poured in another 30 days. His children were chosen for a charter school in Alabama, yet another sign. “It was meant for me to come back home.”

No second thoughts

Asked if he questioned the idea of opening a restaurant in a small, rural town, he shakes his head. “I’m from here. I know what this town (is).” It’s on a route to a Mississippi casino, and it’s also home to nearly 150 hunting clubs, by Jamie Lee’s estimation. There’s also a sizable number of vacation homes along the Tombigbee. Good restaurants are few and far between.

While he never questioned the location, he did a fair amount of research about his food. He took a tour of Alabama and parts of Georgia, visiting restaurants known for their barbecue.

He knew he had a good product, but he found that while most places focus on the meat, no one focused on side items. “Everything was out of the can,” he says. So he incorporated some soul food items, all homemade every day.

Donald Bonner of Helena, traveling with three others on their way back from New Orleans on a recent Sunday, was impressed with the taste and attention to detail. “The potato salad, my mom used to make it like that when I was growing up. The pimentos really bring out the flavor. … The collard greens melt in your mouth.” The ribs, Bonner says, are “succulent.”

Jamie Lee does all the cooking himself. “I don’t trust nobody,” he says, though he’s trying to teach his sons, Jesse and Jayar, the business. Daughter Jaymie already works there, and daughter Jasmyn was expected to come to Gainesville in October. 

He does not miss the big city life. “You can’t beat the peace,” he says. “No sirens, no gunshots. If you hear gunshots here, it’s just target practice for deer season. People are loving, they’re caring. Plus I get a chance to be the real person I always was, because the city takes something out of you. Makes you numb, makes you rude. So I couldn’t wait to get back.”


Alabama Rib Shack

9316 State St. Gainesville, AL 35464

205-652-1115

Hours: 12 to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 12 to 5 p.m. Sunday

Facebook: Alabama Rib Shack

Instagram: @alabama_ribshack

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