From a career in sales to the food truck business

Years on the barbecue competition circuit prepared Chad Cooke for his transition from corporate American to owner of Smokin’ C’s
By 
COREY SCHMIDT
Ozaukee Press staff

Smells of barbeque waft over Grafton’s food truck court, where the former Clark gas station used to be, when Smokin’ C’s Barbeque pulls up every Friday.

Smokin’ C’s, owned and operated by Chad Cooke, didn’t take a traditional path to fruition. In fact, running a food truck wasn’t the plan when Cooke, oblivious to the journey ahead, started barbequing at Grillin’ Grafton in 2011.

“I had a smoker and said, ‘Let’s do this,’ not knowing it was a professional sport,” Cooke said.

That’s right, barbequing is a sport, according to Cooke. After enjoying his time at Grillin’ Grafton, he and his wife drove their recreational vehicle across the country to barbeque competitions. The two were well established in the field — winning eight Grand State Championships in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia during their decade-long run.

The Smokin’ C’s team eventually joined the Kansas City BBQ Society, which is the big leagues of the barbequing world.

“There is a points standing, like NASCAR, and you accumulate points for competitions across the county,” Cooke said. “You’d try to get as many points as you can so we’d travel a lot to do that.”

Their barbeque chicken was ranked 15th out of more than 5,000 teams in 2015, Cooke said.

However, it wasn’t all about the competition. It was also about family and making friends along the way. Cooke’s wife would often bring her family along as “groupies,” which always brought more excitement, Cooke said.

The Cooke family also made friends with other barbequers, which helped them curate their product. In fact, they developed a clique with a few other Wisconsin teams.

“You end up meeting people from all across the country,” Cooke said. “Everyone would come in on Thursday and leave on Sunday. It’s like going camping or to a party.”

“A lot of times you’d try to get information from other teams. When you’re friends, you help each other out. We’d try new things and if it worked, we would share it with each other.”

Their success eventually led them to the “granddaddy of them all” — the Jack Daniel’s World Championship. To compete in the competition, an invitation must be extended, and in 2017 Smokin’ C’s was one of 96 participants, Cooke said. Success was awaiting the husband-wife team as they walked away with the title of World Brisket Champion.

“Teams came from all over the globe,” Cooke said. “Japan, Italy, you name a country and they were probably there.”

Cooke said his brisket is carefully smoked for 12 hours. Afterwards, the pork is pulled and sits in au jus to collect flavor.

Despite his success in the competitive barbequing arena, Cooke is not a chef by trade. He was originally the national sales manager at Axalta where he sold powder coating to Polaris for all-terrain vehicles.

His job’s demands made Cooke step away from the competitive barbequing scene as he boarded a plane on Monday morning and wouldn’t return until Friday, if he was lucky.

“When you compete, you need a few days to prepare and I wasn’t there for that,” Cooke said.

Cooke officially decided to put his competition days behind him in January 2020 and got things rolling for the Smokin’ C’s truck found in Grafton.

“My thought was, ‘Why don’t we trade our competition RV for a vending trailer to help towards retirement?’” he said.

By the time the truck was completed in May 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic was sweeping the county, making it difficult to obtain the health department’s approval.

“I couldn’t get the health department to inspect it because of Covid. They were extremely busy,” Cooke said. “The day they came to do the inspection was the same day I got laid off at work in early September 2020, right before Labor Day.”

Cooke said he was fortunate to recieve a generous severance to help bring the food truck to new heights and start vending full-time. His food truck debut was on April 1, 2021 at the Fermentorium in the Town of Cedarburg.

“It was our first time going. I said, ‘Here is my severance, let’s try it out.’”

In October 2021 — seven months after his debut — his food truck career was put to the test when he received a job offer to return to sales, but he declined the position.

“It was the same thing as before with a different name on the shirt,” Cooke said. “I love cooking, too. It’s also like high school, the last few months I had off for winter. It’s nice knowing I’ll get a break while still having to work hard to make sure I can afford it.”

Smokin’ C’s travels across southeastern Wisconsin with primary stops in Grafton and Slinger. Cooke is a fan of the Grafton site where he can be found every Friday between 11:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. through October.

“Customers utilize the space a lot during lunch hour,” Cooke said. “They pick up their food, eat it and head back where they came from.”

Cooke said Smokin’ C’s pulled brisket and shredded chicken remain top sellers, but the ribs are its best kept secret.

What makes his food special is his style of barbeque, he said.

“My style is a competition style, kind of like a craft beer,” Cooke said. “You’re going to get a lot more flavor. It’s not a Kansas City, Carolina or Texas style — it is a blend of them all.”

“In Wisconsin, it tends to be more sweet while in Georgia it is more fruity. We want it to be more neutral to please all styles.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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