By Virginia Rice
Eugene, Ore.- The smell of barbecue drifts down Highway 99 as the Oklahoma Smokehouse BBQ stand serves another lunch hour rush.
Aaron Speck, along with his wife Liz, opened the Oklahoma Smokehouse BBQ at 1055 Hwy 99 in May of 2008. With his half brother Joe and family friend Connie they serve up Oklahoma style barbecue to go every day of the week. In 2008 the Trainsong and Bethel neighborhoods where the stand is located was booming for middle-class workers and construction. “We’re not vegetarian friendly so we wanted a location with a lot of traffic and visibility,” says Speck. At the time there weren’t very many ‘real food’ locations on Highway 99 and traffic from the nearby neighborhoods and businesses needed a good place to eat.
As a customer rolls up to the window Aaron Speck gets ready to take orders. “I always do what I can for the customers,” says Speck as he makes a special order sandwich, not normally found on the menu. As he talks about the potential thunderheads in the distance while preparing some smoky flavored brisket iSeinfeld plays on the small television in the corner of the trailer. “The best thing about owning my own business is when someone comes up to me and says I have the best barbecue in town”.
Oregon to Oklahoma and Back
Speck, born in Berkeley, CA, was raised in Port Towsend, Washington with a large extended family and his mom and dad who still live there. After graduating high school in 1994 he attended Washington State University for two years. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” says Speck, who left college and stayed with some friends in Spokane. “I had some friends living in Eugene at the time and I went there. I just worked odd jobs and went to Lane Community College before I decided to go into meteorology,” Speck says. His plan was to transfer to the University of Washington, but due to various reasons it didn’t work out. He began looking for another school and found the University of Oklahoma ,where the out-of-state tuition was cheaper than in-state at UW.
While at OU Speck found a love for the Oklahoma barbecue scene. At Harv’s BBQ in Norman he found inspiration and a mentor who would tell him everything but the recipe. “I assured my parents that I would get my degree but I decided there that when I graduated I wanted to open a barbecue place,” says Speck. On a trip home to visit friends in Eugene he met Liz and while home one summer they began dating. When she graduated from the University of Oregon she moved to Norman to be with him. “About six months before I graduated she moved back to Eugene and when I graduated I followed her.” They were soon married and their first child, a boy, is due this September.
Economic Set Back
After the first successful summer running his own business the economic depression began to sink in. “People starting losing their jobs, construction stopped and everyone had to cut back.” In addition the location of Oklahoma Smokehouse BBQ is located in the Trainsong neighborhood where theft is common, according to crime reports. “See this,” says Speck, picking up a maul. “It’s my second one. My first one was stolen off the back deck of the trailer.” Speck says that the theft is pretty in the neighborhood and as long as he remembers to put things away, along with his alarm system, then his business is fairly protected. “This part of town was hit hard by the economy,” Speck says. Jesse Lohrke, member of the Trainsong Neighborhood Association, says that poor bus routes and a lack of a bike path on the overpass of Highway 99 also contribute to the downfall of the neighborhood. “I don’t see any recovery coming soon out here. There’s optimistic and realistic,” says Speck.
Looking to the Future
Speck also runs a BBQ stand on 14th by the University of Oregon during the school year, a stand which he would like to make permanent. “This business,” says Speck in reference to his full size stand on 99, “on campus or near campus would kill.” The Oklahoma Smokehouse BBQ used to have a large quantity of regular customers but the economy changed that as well. Speck says he would like to move to a place closer to campus with indoor seating and a larger menu. “I’ve been told the food is great but it’s too far out of the way for most Eugene residents,” said Speck. “The fact that I’ve been here for two years is a testament to the food.”