“Barbecue” isn’t a verb to Brad Orrison. It’s not something you do. And it goes far beyond what ends up on a paper plate next to potato salad and baked beans.
“When you think of your favorite barbecue, it’s not just the flavor and texture of the meat, it’s also where you were at that point in your life,” said Orrison. “It’s a family affair, and it takes time.”
With The Shed, the Ocean Springs barbecue and blues joint Orrison founded in 2001 with his siblings, Brooke and Brett, he staked his vision of barbecue nirvana — part juke joint, part restaurant with a family picnic vibe — and ran with it.
Serving up pecan-wood smoked baby back, spare and full-rack pork ribs, as well as brisket, sausage, chicken, pulled pork and a spread of sides and desserts, The Shed’s menu is stacked for fans of Southern barbecue.
The Shed now claims a season of its own Food Network reality show. They’ve also racked up a nationally distributed sauce and rub line — and perhaps drawing the most pride, the 2015 Grand World Championship title from the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest — in just 15 years.
The roots of The Shed go back to the communal food-and-music experiences Orrison had as an Ole Miss Student in the ’90s when he and friends would tear up Highway 4 through Marshall County to attend Junior Kimbrough’s Sunday night jams.
“My first overnight cook of large, primal cuts of pork was at Junior’s,” Orrison said. “I got a lesson in cooking, music and life at the juke joints, especially Junior’s. You’d pay a dollar to get in and watch R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, everybody. I knew there was a place where I was welcome, where anyone was welcome. It was like a huge family reunion.”
Although things could get dicey at the real juke joints as the evenings wore on — the refrigerator at Junior’s, he remembers, was chained shut and padlocked, and they’d have to open it every time someone wanted a beer — the experience stuck with him and informed his philosophy for The Shed.
“I wanted people to have that same perpetual smile,” Orrison said. “There’s music, things to look at on the walls, nice people having fun, dancing and enjoying barbecue and food and camaraderie. But I wanted to do it in more of a family atmosphere. Live music [at The Shed] is always free and wraps by 9 or 10 o’clock at night, so the kids can enjoy it.”
The eatery’s kitschy, trash-as-treasure aesthetic appeal comes honestly. Orrison found his inspiration in college, where he would spend his free time searching for thrifty finds along the roadsides and in dumpsters. Every semester, students moved in and out, leaving behind furniture and personal belongings for the taking. Some of the corrugated tin he collected made its way to The Shed, but less obvious finds also helped the cause.
Orrison would sometimes pay $50 to go into derelict houses before demolition, mostly looking for kitchen appliances and building materials. In one house, he came across a large collection of old vinyl records. He didn’t know the value of what he had, but it came in handy later when they needed money to open The Shed. He placed an ad in the local Penny Pincher classifieds offering the lot of 3,000 albums for $3,000.
“This collector bought them as soon as she laid eyes on them,” said co-founder and chief financial officer Brooke Lewis. “Being an avid collector, she knew what she had. She sold one of them for like $4,500 — an Elvis Presley 45 rpm promotional record. But we needed that money to open. That $3,000 bought our opening meat inventory. It was a win-win.”
The sense of family at The Shed extends beyond bloodlines. Although the restaurant took on more than seven feet of water during Hurricane Katrina, it reopened within two weeks. The work brought stability to The Shed’s 50 employees and their families.
“We tried to keep the spirits up as much as we could,” said Lewis. “Ninety-nine percent of The Shed employees lost everything, including myself. We felt it was our duty to get open as quickly as we could to protect our crew members. They needed income.”
The crew members kept their heads down, “slinging ‘cue” as she says, and worked until December, when The Shed took a month off for Christmas — with pay. Many of them used that time to finish cleaning up their homes and help each other’s families get on with life.
But where Katrina brought the community to its knees, the fire that consumed most of the original Shed structure in 2012 brought it together. The “remodeling,” as Lewis described it, drew barbecue friends from around the country as well as local folks to help rebuild. The kitchen they operate today served a different purpose in the original restaurant, and overall the new Shed gravitated farther back from the road around the lean-tos and pieces that weren’t destroyed.
The ShedHeds, the joint’s loose community of loyal customers, also got involved. With many of Brad’s original reclaimed treasures gone, ShedHeds brought pieces from their own homes to help decorate the new space.
“We reached out and said, ‘Bring your stuff! Bring your tacky chandelier out of the attic, bring your old license plates,’” said Lewis. “We love seeing people come in and say, ‘See that license tag there? That’s mine.’ Or, ‘See that piano? I played on that as a child, and I didn’t have any use for it so I brought it here to The Shed.’
“It lets the community know that The Shed is their home. Even though it may look to the blind eye like a bunch of random things, that’s not the reality of it. Every piece of décor at The Shed has a story.”
Through flood and fire, the family has grown the original 330-square-foot Highway 57 establishment, which opened with six bar stools and a pair of two-top tables, into a franchise brand.
Despite the growth, Orrison and company haven’t lost sight of the original vision. The menu hasn’t changed much. They still have fun and push through the hard times happily. And some of those musicians Brad met at the juke joints in the Hill Country, folks like Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcolm, stop by to entertain regularly.
“Every week since we’ve been open, we’ve had at least two blues bands, and it’s always been free,” Orrison said. “It’s over a million bucks when you do the math. That’s our way of saying this is where it came from. It all started on that blues record collection.”