Like a siren calling out to a wayward sailor, the wafting aromas of barbecue smoke used to lure Steve Stottlemyer off the interstate and into hole-in-the-wall rib shacks all across the country.
"I love barbecue," he says. "I was always obsessed with finding the best product. I would tell my wife, 'We have to stop.'"
For the last 20 years, Stottlemyer and his wife, Terry, have owned and operated the Fruitville Texaco station at 19 East Road, where they've served up hundreds of pounds of their homemade fried chicken each day to droves of loyal working-class customers.
Now, they've taken their operation to the next level. This month, the couple opened Stottlemyer's Smokehouse, a full-service restaurant at the same location, where they'll continue to dish out the crispy yardbird that put them on the radar — plus a full menu of the type of slow-smoked barbecue that's enthralled them for so long.
Stottlemyer says he picked up his business model after watching gas-station trends in the Northeast, before food was commonly integrated into service stations.
"The paradigm always was that food and gas don't mix," he says. "But I saw places like Wawa finding success up north, so I decided I wanted to be our own purveyor of food here, and it was a huge hit with our customers. There are a lot of working people who stop here for breakfast before work, and our fried chicken has gotten a lot of attention."
The restaurant is situated next to the gas station in a large, cool chickee hut, outfitted with fans and tables, a bar and a stage, where bands will eventually set up to entertain diners. In addition to its beloved fried chicken, the smokehouse will offer burgers, steaks, po' boys and the expected barbecue fare: ribs, pulled pork, and their pride and joy — Texas-style beef brisket.
"That's the true test," he says. "If you can do brisket, you can do anything."
Terry Stottlemyer says she's excited to expand their business and introduce people to a taste of the real Florida she knows and loves.
"There's St. Louis-style barbecue, Kansas City-style and Memphis-style," she says. "Now you've got Fruitville barbecue."