By ANDREA LANNOM ∙ firstname.lastname@example.org
FAYETTEVILLE — From the smell of its smoked brisket and ribs drifting over Route 19 to the comforting, customer generated décor, Fayetteville's Dirty Ernie's Rib Pit entices visitors to stop in and "get ribbed."
The business was born in the 1990s at its Keller Avenue location. What started as college jobs turned into careers for current owners Mike and Kiley Price.
"I started in the kitchen and sweeping floors and taking out the trash. She was a waitress," Mike Price recalled.
After former owner, Ron Taylor, retired, the Prices decided to keep the restaurant going.
"We tried to keep what we were good at and stay true," Mike Price said. "We tried to improve without forgetting what we were."
The restaurant sees a variety of customers, from rafters to Bridge Day jumpers to people just passing through. And with the future addition of the Summit Bechtel Reserve, the restaurant could see even more customers.
Luckily, the restaurant can hold more than 200 people, Price said.
"Our restaurant can accommodate big groups. There are a lot of groups that go down the river — about 30-50 people at a time — but we are able to take care of them."
From its "dirty" moniker to shirts emblazoned with "dirty staff," the restaurant's name actually comes from a ghost story.
"What Ron always told people is there was a fellow who ran the Bridge Tender Inn — which is what this place was years ago, a bed and breakfast. … His name was Ernie, and he worked here for years. He passed away in the building and as Ron would tell the story, the ghost of Dirty Ernie was in this place," Price said.
Ernie became the restaurant's mascot and the name became a unique selling point.
"It's a little unorthodox to have dirty in a name, but it caught on," Price said. "I've been to Disney World and all over the country and I've seen Dirty Ernie's T-shirts. It's a popular name, and we definitely sell T-shirts because of the name."
The restaurant's name isn't the only thing it's famous for.
As the name hints, the restaurant is known for its fall-off-the-bone ribs and also its fork-tender smoked brisket, which Price said is one of the most popular items.
The restaurant also has a specialty vinegar-based sweet barbeque sauce, steak, prime rib and pit-smoked barbeque.
"We tried to be a little bit more, not a steakhouse, but as we developed the menu we had mainly barbeque items at first," he said. "We do more steak than ribs."
The family friendly and customer-centric atmosphere also has helped the restaurant's appeal.
Most of the decorations in the log cabin-type restaurant are customer-generated. Several flags line the rafters representing several different sports teams.
"We also have dollars on the wall. We had a swim team here one day who stapled the dollar with a signature. Then everyone started putting up dollars. The whole wall will fill up with dollars. At the end of the year, we take down the dollars and donate it to charity," Price said.
That atmosphere has attracted sports teams and "Survivor" cast members. Yet one of the most memorable customers, Price says, was a 4-year-old girl battling cancer.
"Her name was Isabelle. Izzy McManaway had been fighting a battle with cancer the last couple of years. One night, her whole family came in and got to take down all the dollars that were donated to her family. That was probably the most memorable moment, watching her and her family do all of that right before she passed away."
The restaurant's strong connection to the community has grown over the years and is something in which Price takes pride.
"It's taken a long time to get that way, and I grew up in this community. We definitely do have a strong connection with all of them, pretty much everyone that comes in here. People have a lot of options of where they can go and we genuinely appreciate it. We want to spend time with them, not just because we want them to come back but because we're happy they are here now."