Small Town Spotlight: The story behind this West Yellowstone BBQ joint and how it ended up on national TV
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WEST YELLOWSTONE, Montana — Among the many food options just outside the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park is a barbecue place that found its way onto Food Network less than a week after it opened.
Firehole Bar-B-Que Co. had been open just four days when celebrity chef Guy Fieri decided the food was so good it had to be featured on his show ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.’
Julie Shults, who owns the restaurant with her husband Mike Shults, described that hectic experience to EastIdahoNews.com, saying that the two looked at each other after Fieri left and exclaimed, “What the heck just happened.”
Since then, lines have wrapped around the block with people who want to try the traditional barbecue — ribs, pulled pork and brisket — and the less-than-traditional corn salad.
But what happened in the months leading up to Fieri’s visit is just as exciting as what has unfolded in the four years since.
How the restaurant came to be
Julie and Mike are the former owners of Lil’ Mike’s Bar-B-Que in Rigby. Five years ago, they were invited to cater a snowmobile expo in West Yellowstone.
Residents were smitten with the grub.
“People were titter-tattering about how they would love to have us come full-time here,” Julie said.
One of those residents was Jerry Schmier, a local businessman who was in the process of purchasing a building he thought was perfect for the Shutlses.
They didn’t have much, but Julie, Mike and their family “nickeled and dimed” their way into opening the restaurant – a decision Julie described as “do-or-die.”
“We actually lived in a fifth wheel on the side of someone’s property. With six people,” she said. “It was very hard, but we made it work. This was our dream, this was our passion. … We could not afford for this to fail.”
After the boost Firehole received with the Fieri episode — season 29, episode 9: ‘Brisket to Bison’ — the Shults family was finally able to move out of the trailer and into a home. But, once again, Schmier was there to lend an assist.
With all the couple’s money tied up in the restaurant, the Shults family could not afford to buy a house. So Schmier purchased a home in West Yellowstone and negotiated a rent-to-own agreement with them.
As Julie explained, Schmier is why their business is in West Yellowstone, and they were able to survive there. But he is just one representative of the tight-knit community West Yellowstone creates.
Other business owners, still four years after Firehole opened, will reach out to Julie to check how things are going and if her family needs anything.
“We all support each other,” she said of the people of West Yellowstone, of which the population stands around 1,000.
Community support and what’s next
That community is quick to support others like it.
With the park shut down following the June 13 flood, the businesses of West Yellowstone were without the visitors the park provided for just over a week. And while the business owners are happy the park has reopened, they realize that other communities near the still-closed north and northeast entrances may be forced to survive without an entire season.
“If we were closed for an entire season, it would financially ruin us,” Julie said.
So, Julie, along with some other businesses in West Yellowstone and the town’s Chamber of Commerce, are working to help their northern brethren operate out of West Yellowstone.
Julie is offering discounted food to those businesses and their customers. She is also pushing other restaurants and lodging to do the same.
As she tells her children, “The good times and the bad times prepare you for the journey you’re going to go on in life.”
Julie opines that her family-owned business has a purpose.
As business picked up following the ‘DDD’ episode, Mike told her the restaurant needed another smoker as the existing one inside the Lil’ Mike’s trailer was no longer sufficient.
Julie called Old Hickory, the company that makes Firehole’s smokers, and got a quote of $38,000 for the twin smokers she ordered.
Stresses and needing an escape, the couple went to the Peppermill hotel and casino in Reno, Nevada — their normal stress-reliever.
There, Mike hit a slot machine jackpot for $37,000.
Julie used the winnings to order the new twin smokers that night — smokers Mike named Cheech and Chong.
While Firehole embraces and serves the small West Yellowstone community, it has created its own far-reaching community. Firehole employs a woman from Jamaica, who has worked there seasonally for about three years, along with three men from Turkey.
It makes sense to cast an employee night so wide. As Julie explained, she has spoken with customers who first heard about her restaurant while camping in Wyoming or shopping in Florida. She has had visitors from all 50 states and countless countries.
Given its popularity, Julie hopes to expand the Firehole brand at some point — she has always been a fan of the food scene in Eagle, Idaho.
Firehole Bar-B-Que Co. is located at 120 Firehole Avenue and opens at 11 a.m. seven days a week, and closes at 10 p.m. — or when the meat runs out — during the Yellowstone National Park season.
Firehole BBQ Express will be open through the winter for the first time this year. It opens daily at 4 p.m. and does not close until they sell out.
Small Town Spotlight wants to shine a light on all the good going on in small-town Idaho. If you know of someone or something in one of Idaho’s many small towns that deserve to be featured on Small Town Spotlight, email Kalama@EastIdahoNews.com and include “spotlight” in the subject line.