Aug. 6—If you walk in the front door of Bibbs Smokehouse and Catering in east Norman, you'll be greeted by a man saluting you on the far wall.
It's a full-size picture of Landon Aufleger, who was shot and killed April 14 in Stillwater after a fight at a barbershop. Before he died, Aufleger was going to work as the restaurant's operations manager with his father, Chuck Bibbs.
Bibbs and co-owner Ronshene Smith now run the restaurant, 10810 Alameda Drive, right next to Lake Thunderbird. It's approaching three months in operation.
Aufleger's death still hangs heavy for the restaurant's owners — Smith teared up Friday as Bibbs talked about his late son.
"This concept is driven by this kid's soul, and that's why (the picture is) up there," Bibbs said. "Every day, we tell him good morning, every night, when we leave, we tell him, 'See you tomorrow,' and that's in our food. Because he was here every day when we were painting and getting things ready, and he was going to be our keeper of the grounds."
But the spirit of the food, atmosphere and service at Bibbs Smokehouse starkly contrast the tragedy its owners are walking through. Aufleger's death is motivation to keep the restaurant in as good condition as possible.
"We never did before, but we don't simp or go around anything now, because we're riding for him, and we want everybody to know who he is and what we're doing here," Bibbs said.
'This is where we're going to stay'
Bibbs Smokehouse sits in Denver Corner in east Norman. The historic area used to be home to a grocery store and a bait shop, among other businesses that have come and gone throughout the decades.
It now holds the restaurant, which stands with a tin roof and a sign directing drivers to eat inside.
Bibbs originally had the idea for the restaurant after more than two decades in the food industry. He was the culinary director for Provision Concepts, the company that has given the Oklahoma City area Sidecar Barley & Wine Bar and Hatch Early Morning Food.
While in Austin in the 2000s, Bibbs worked for renowned pitmaster Aaron Franklin before returning to Stillwater, his hometown.
"I worked for several different outfits (in Austin), and finally got into the smoking, barbecue side of it. It was fun, and then I kind of went into fine dining, and then one day, I came back here to smoking again, and I said, 'Alright, this is where we're going to stay,'" Bibbs said.
In Oklahoma City, he and Smith began Clark Crew BBQ before their venture in Norman. Smith had previously been a pitmaster at Dickey's.
Bibbs and Smith originally got the idea for the smokehouse as they looked to start smoker concession trailers. Someone called Bibbs about the location, he said.
"I called (Smith) one day and said, 'Hey, I got a place out in Norman that I think would be great,'" Bibbs said.
The pair put about $50,000 of their own money forward for the smokehouse. Family and loved ones supported them as they got the restaurant up and running, Bibbs said.
The restaurant now has red walls with memorabilia, plenty of tables, wooden chairs and a kitchen.
Behind the kitchen, inside an outbuilding, is "Bertha," the restaurant's cinder block fire pit. At any given time, Bertha is filled with rows of meats Smith is smoking.
Next to Bertha, Smith uses two smokers to cook other meats.
They start cooking at 7 a.m. every day they're open, Bibbs said.
Smith and Bibbs use the meats they cook to make offerings influenced by cuisine from Austin, St. Louis (Smith's hometown) and Oklahoma. Customers can order everything from juicy, Texas-style brisket to chicken fried steak to barbecue-stuffed fry bread.
"My great-grandfather was Cherokee, and he always made fry bread. It was just sort of traditional fry bread, and so one day I was just brainstorming, and I called 'Shene, and I said, 'Dude, I think loaded fry bread would take off, putting beans and brisket and incorporating the smokehouse on it,'" Bibbs said.
"We just kind of infused it into what we thought would be good food for the community and what we thought, the type of food that we wanted to put out. We don't want to be a cookie cutter. We didn't want to be a normal smokehouse barbecue company," Smith said.
Bibbs said they'll start serving breakfast beginning in hunting season.
The pair said business has been good since they opened May 16. It's mostly hinged on word of mouth, Smith said.
But Bibbs also said his son's death has made running the restaurant a challenge. He said they weren't fully open Memorial Day weekend — a holiday commonly associated with lake activities — so they could do a fundraiser for his funeral expenses.
Bibbs hopes customers will understand the impact his loss has on the business. But he and Smith are still plugging away.
"He got a bad day, I'm there for him. When I'm having a bad day, he's there for me. We're the glue that keeps it together man, so as long as we keep it good, then everything's going to fall in place," Smith said.
They're focused on barbecue now, but Smith and Bibbs have plans for Denver Corner that exceed their restaurant.
Bibbs said several residents have expressed that the area is a community center for east Norman. They've told him businesses have come and gone, and they would like a consistent presence in the area.
Since purchasing the property, Bibbs has cleared out several areas for RVs and bought the convenience store next to the smokehouse. He and Smith plan to eventually have a band shell, fire pits, a farmer's market space and a place to get coffee.
"You want to bring the dog out, you want to bring the kids out. We're going to have volleyball courts in the back. We're going try to put some glamping tents over here behind the store," Bibbs said.
Bibbs said he and Smith are at Denver Corner "as a family" to be part of Norman.
But for now, they're focused on making great food and growing their customer base.
"Good food will keep them coming every time. So I take my time — we've got simple recipes, simple concepts, and patience," Smith said. "We don't fast-track anything. We don't cut any corners on anything. We take a lot of pride in our food. Everything else will come, but the food has to stay consistent."