By TAYLOR KUYKENDALL · firstname.lastname@example.org
ONA — West Virginia is usually considered a little too north by southerners, and a little too south for the North. A.J. Jones in Cabell County has found a way to make a pretty good argument for placing the Mountain State down South.
"My barbecue is nothing but the highest-quality product going on the grill, and my almost world famous barbecue sauce only makes it that much better," said Jones, the owner of AJ's Pig Pickin'. "We have quality product, quality personnel and that turns into a relaxing atmosphere and great food."
Jones' catering service has been in the area since 1985, providing Southern-style barbecue ever since. Most of his jobs keep him in the Tri-State area surrounding Huntington, but he has taken his meals across the state.
"I saw it going on in the Carolinas, and I moved down there and researched it for about six months," Jones said. "I grew up in a meat processing plant and people started asking for roasting hogs and who they could get to cook them. With me being in the meat business, I just kind of fell in."
While he enjoyed his stay and the food in the Carolinas, he wanted to get started in West Virginia.
"I was among professionals there," he said. "I thought if I came here I could be the professional."
Now, his barbecue draws comparisons to the Southern pros.
Jones got started cooking only pigs when he first came back from his study in the Carolinas.
"We've kind of evolved into a full-fledged caterer over the years," Jones said.
Since then, the operation has grown, and so has his capacity to handle crowds. Jones said one of his largest corporate jobs tested his ability to scale the catering he was doing.
"I've catered as big as 3,400 people for Toyota," he said. "I had 14 people there and everyone knew exactly what to do, and man, it went like clockwork. … They said it couldn't be done, but we did."
Jones brags that he was able to put nearly 700 people through the food line in just over 7 minutes.
"That's always a big concern that I have," Jones said. "I want to get people through the food lines and sitting down so they can all enjoy their meal at the same time."
The average event, however isn't quite so attended. Jones said he typically handles groups of 100, but he also routinely does groups of 20 on up to "the big ones."
Jones has a number of mouth-watering items on his menu — chicken wings, smoked Buffalo chicken dip, hot pepper and crab cheese balls, bacon-wrapped scallops, smashed potatoes, deep-fried turkeys, prime rib, authentic pig roast, banana split cake and red velvet cake.
Packages range from $10 apiece to $27.50 each and include a variety of bundling options for menu items.
In addition to the catering service, AJ's Pig Pickin', Jones also runs the Sundowner Key, a party and banquet room with a beach theme complete with houseboat and tiki bar.
"It's a tropical reception hall," he said. "I wanted to retire on the beach. Two grandsons later, I find out that I can't retire at all, so I'm building my own beach right here."
Though he's in the mountains, the memory and experience of the coast has proven difficult to shake, Jones said.
"I've got saltwater in these veins and I can't get it out of me you know?" Jones said.
As of the end of May, 55 parties had already been booked for the summer, with some bookings extending through the season.
"Weekends are the busiest, but we can do a lot of different things, like luncheons, during the week also," Jones said.
Catering, Jones said, gives him a larger role in preparing the meal than what he would get if he opened a restaurant.
"With catering, I control the quality of the food by purchasing only when I book the party," he said. "I don't serve restaurant food."
What's the difference between restaurant food and AJ's? That's something that's hard to capture in words, Jones said.
"It's been a hidden secret for 27 years, it's — I don't know, man — you just got to taste it."
AJ's Pig Pickin'/Sundowner Key can be found at 2563 Yates Crossing Road in Ona. To Reach AJ's call 304-743-7990 or email email@example.com.