Editor’s Note: The following story is part of Tri-Cities Best, a viewer-voted segment of News Channel 11’s community coverage. After nearly a month of nominations and voting, only a handful of local businesses have reached the end. Every vote is an honor, with thousands being cast in total.
BLUFF CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – After thousands of votes, News Channel 11 viewers and readers have selected Ridgewood Barbecue as the best BBQ joint in the Tri-Cities among some very tough competition:
- Phil’s Dream Pit
- Project BBQ JC
- The Firehouse
You won’t see many ads for the 74-year-tenured business in the back roads of Bluff City. As such, it might be easy to think Ridgewood is small and unknown. You couldn’t be more wrong.
“We get customers from all over the United States,” said Brenda Fagan, one of the restaurant’s managers and hostesses for 50 years. “We’ve had some from Australia, Africa, England, everywhere.”
The building — which supports parking for a couple of dozen cars — has played host to governors, celebrities and locals alike for nearly 75 years, but Fagan said it doesn’t matter who you are when it comes to good BBQ. At Ridgewood, you’ll be getting exactly what they’ve been serving for three-quarters of a century.
“Nothing’s changed,” Fagan said. “It’s all the same.”
The only notable exceptions to the “no changes” rule came to the building itself, with a handful of additions and improvements over the years. In terms of the menu, the biggest wavemaker was the addition of blue cheese dressing as an appetizer after mass customer requests.
In terms of BBQ specifics, you’ll be hard-pressed to get a peek behind the curtain. Brenda spent 50 years inside and now knows just as much about the sauce recipe as when she started. In fact, only five members across four generations of the Proffitt dynasty have ever learned the recipe in full: Grace, Terry, Larry, Lisa and Jacob.
What we do know is that the “Tennessee-Style” sauce is tomato-based, with a sweet and smoky twist that is almost impossible to describe. Past that, even veteran customers that have spent decades with the business haven’t fully figured it out.
Smoked pork, the heart of BBQ, takes its own form at Ridgewood. Simple hickory smoking begins in the early hours of the day and runs for a good 8-10 hours at a minimum. Then, it’s given time to rest and cool down with a layer of herbs and spices.
Once it’s ready, the meat is sliced deli-thin and thrown on a flat top grill to reheat and catch a bit of browning around the edges. Then, it’s slathered in sauce and allowed to caramelize on the grill for a time before a mind-boggling portion is scooped up and used to top either a plate or bun.
Pair that with a hearty pile of hand-cut fries, fresh coleslaw and some dinner rolls, and you have yourself a Ridgewood Barbecue Platter. If you’re not interested in making the drive after that mental image, then maybe barbecue just isn’t your thing.
On a typical day, Fagan said the team goes through 300-400 pounds of the stuff, with even more prepared on holidays and special occasions. For catering orders, Fagan said some organizers pick up their products by the hundreds of pounds.
But for a business this popular without the main-street location that some others may aspire to, Fagan it takes a lot of personal connection. As a hostess with half a century’s experience, she greets new and familiar faces all the time.
“I have forgot a lot of people’s names, but I haven’t forgot their faces,” Fagan said. “And a lot of them, I give them nicknames and they answer to that when they come in. That’s just it, I love people. I’ve raised a son working here.”
Fagan has loved her time with the business, sticking with them through thick and thin from the time she first finished with school.
“The Proffitts are wonderful people,” Fagan said. “They’ve been so good to me, and I can’t say nothing against any of them.”
Where the business is headed in the future seems like an easy prediction — with a steady hand on the wheel and consistent performance, Ridgewood is enjoying the smoothest sailing that they can in some of the more challenging times local restaurants have faced. From time to time, the crew is forced to limit their service to to-go only since serving staff is scarce. Other times, beef prices keep them from running a full menu.
But all in all, with Lisa’s son entering the business after college and rumblings of a food truck down the pipe, things are looking good for a Tri-Cities staple that’s hard to beat.