How We Started:
Mike and Judith Lewis, both 33-year-old natives of Tampa, Fla., moved to Houma within the past several years to make a lifestyle change.
Judith, who worked in retail for 15 years, decided she wanted to stay home with the couple’s children, ages 4 and 21 months. And Mike, whose father’s side of the family hails from Houma, had talked for years about moving near his south Louisiana relatives. His father, Harold Lewis, was born and raised here and returned to live in the city 25 years ago. As a child, Mike would spend summers doing odd jobs in his father’s mechanic shop off Barrow Street, sometimes stopping for a treat at Tastee Donuts, which sat where his restaurant now sits.
“Houma is a good place to raise a family,” Mike said. “Even though Houma is a lot bigger than it used to be, people still know each other around town.”
The barbecue joint represents the achievement of Mike’s longtime wish to open his own restaurant. The Houma resident has never received formal culinary training, but has worked in the restaurant industry since 16, filling roles ranging from line cook to corporate trainer to general manager.
“I love the restaurant business,” Mike said, adding that he strives to patronize other locally owned eateries to help boost the industry. This marks Judith’s first go at the restaurant industry, but she said the customer-service skills she learned in retail carry over into the food business. The couple run Big Mike’s with help from other family members.
A Family Affair:
Mike’s 78-year-old father, Harold, arrives at the restaurant around 4:30 or 5 most mornings to get a good fire going, so his son can start grilling by 6 or 7. The Lewises put the brisket on at 4 p.m. each day for the next day’s lunch hour, so it cooks 16 to 20 hours. The ribs and chicken hit the grill early each morning, and the elder Lewis insists on loading them, Mike said.
“I can’t keep him away,” Mike said with a laugh about his father. “I’ve fired him a lot, but he keeps showing back up.”
Judith’s younger brother, Chris Pina, can be found taking orders up front. Customers like Bruce Feigler of Houma, a New Orleans native who moved here after Hurricane Katrina, said he enjoys the eatery’s tender brisket, but also the homemade, family feel to the place. “It looks like it’s a family affair,” he said.
The Delicious Food:
Keeping a steady flow of fresh barbecue can present challenges, especially since the cooking time and number of customers per day are often unpredictable, the Lewises said. But a love for smoking meats and a perceived gap in local eating options led Mike to focus on the grill with his first restaurant.
“Barbecue is more unique than any other food to cook,” Mike said, adding that he’s met skilled chefs who can cook anything but barbecue. “There’s definitely an art to it.”
The area is rife with seafood and chain restaurants, but Mike said he saw a need for a traditional barbecue place. “We saw a niche and we filled it,” he said.
Mike creates the restaurant’s recipes from scratch, using a combination of borrowed techniques and his own ideas. He spent more than a year on the sauce, which he plans to bottle and sell, Judith said. Big Mike’s mostly sells barbecued meats, but also entertains a steady following for fried chicken. The restaurant usually starts taking orders by 10 a.m., with businesses calling in for plate lunches. Big Mike’s also caters, both on-site and to-go.
This time forms the height of the barbecue season, as summer draws to a close and football fans pick up barbecue for tailgating parties. The restaurant serves its meals to-go, but about 25 percent of its customers dine in when they can find an empty stool at the counter of the former doughnut shop. The location often proves inviting to passers-by at the busy intersection, which Mike credits with helping the eatery get a faster start.
Customers also say they enjoy the restaurant’s cozy, worn-in atmosphere. The Lewises said they made a number of improvements to the spot, such as fresh coats of paint and new décor, but worked to keep the place’s homey ambience.
“It’s a barbecue joint — it can be clean, but it can also have character,” Mike said.
Framed photos of musicians, roadside ads for barbecue spots and pictures of logs decorate the walls. A coffeepot brews Community Coffee, long-used barstools line the counter and the sounds of blues guitar play as customers eat their chicken and ribs.
“It kind of lets people know we’re down to Earth,” Mike said. “We’re pretty laid-back folks. I think that’s part of what makes this work.”
Staff Writer – The Courier