When Howard Smith opened the Chef’s Table on West Colorado Avenue in November 1969, he had no clue that the most popular item on the standard-fare menu would be his barbecue ribs. The barbecue sauce, concocted from what Smith said is “sheer trial and error as opposed to some old family recipe,” has been his claim to fame for 35 years.
Smith’s by-chance recipe for barbecue, branded under the name Howard, has consistently won first or second place as the tastiest in town since The Gazette published its first annual “Best of the Springs.”
Smith’s pursuit of excellence was not exactly a cakewalk. As a black entrepreneur in the 1970s, Smith faced a few of his own trials.
In 1972, Smith capitalized on the barbecue’s popularity and moved the Chef’s Table to a different location on West Colorado Avenue, changing its name to The Pit Barbecue, which better reflected the restaurant’s new focus. Smith refrained from using his name until he retired from the military.
In 1976, post-army career, Smith moved his barbecue house to another location on West Colorado Avenue, renaming it Howard’s Backyard Pit Barbecue.
Smith’s recognition as the king of barbecue had been gaining ground with Pikes Peak area residents since he first opened his doors. However, the business community, which was predominantly white back then, was at times less-than-friendly to a minority-business owner, Smith said.
In the 1970s, Smith requested a $5,000-loan from Pikes Peak National Bank to enhance his already-established business. Earlier, he had applied to the U.S. Small Business Administration for the loan; however, SBA representatives told Smith he needed denials from two banks before they would directly process his request.
Smith already had one bank denial when he applied for a business loan – initially an SBA low interest loan – at Pikes Peak National. Smith said he figured a second denial was forthcoming when the manager looked at his accounting books and said, “You mean you handle this kind of money.” However, instead of a denial, which would have allowed Smith to go back to the SBA, the manager told Smith the bank would loan him the money through a private lender at 2 percent above the 17 percent interest rate.
Smith, dissatisfied with the bank’s decision but not discouraged, contacted Rep. Joel Hefley, and three days later Smith received a call from the SBA congratulating him on his business loan, approved at an 8.25 percent interest rate.
Meanwhile, Smith’s wife, who is white and had no other income but her husband’s, applied for a $1,000 loan at Pikes Peak National Bank to start a Mary Kay business. The bank approved her loan.
“It’s better now, but this is still white man’s country,” Smith said. “I don’t let those kind of problems get in my way, and my success is because I’ve always done what I said I was going to do.”
In 1984, the Colorado Springs forced Smith to move his restaurant again.
Smith learned a McDonald’s franchisor had his sights set on the barbecue pit location, so Smith went to the city planning commission and requested that the area’s zoning remain the same. The planning commissioners unanimously agreed to keep the original zoning; however, when the issue went before City Council, the commissioners were overruled. The new zoning meant Smith was out and McDonald’s was in.
Smith moved his barbecue house to a site on Sierra Madre Street. “A corporation like McDonald’s is going to bring a lot more money to a city,” Smith said.
Smith survived it all, opening a second store – Howard’s Barbecue, when he leased the former County Line Barbecue restaurant at 3350 N. Chestnut St. On Christmas Eve 2003, Smith relocated Howard’s Backyard Barbecue Pit to the Chestnut location. Under one roof again, the full-service restaurant is open seven days a week, and Smith maintains a booming in-house and off-premise catering business.
Although Smith does not recommend the long hours and hard work relative to the restaurant business, he continues at age 66 because, he said, “This isn’t a job – I enjoy cooking, the people and living the American dream.” His five sons and three daughters worked in the business as they were growing up, but Smith said they decided early on to pursue different paths.
His advice to minority children: Get an education. “I want to put my arms around the young, black person, as it is easy to be led astray,” Smith said. “But people can overcome the prejudices that still exist by having an education and a plan. They can combat the obstacles with an education.”
Nothing obstructed Smith’s plan, and a 35-year career in the restaurant business is the proof of the pudding or, in this case, the sauce on the ribs.