By Jeff Louderback
It’s a crisp Saturday morning in Dunedin, but Elijah Crawford doesn’t notice the chilly air from his spot inside the grill house behind his barbecue stand. Eli’s Bar-B-Que is only open on Friday and Saturday, and a line is starting to form, even with the cool temperature.
Crawford and fellow pitmaster, Eric Davis, tend to the assortment of meats on the grill: whole chickens, three-pound slabs of ribs, sausages and beef rest of the bottom rack. An array of Boston butts fills the top rack. Smoke billows from the grill house, which Crawford built and calls the Big Foot. The pleasing scent of barbecue wafts over to nearby Pinellas Trail. Just make sure you tell Crawford you like the way he grills the meat because he will quickly correct you if you assume his barbecue is smoked.
“Some people smoke their meat, but I grill because the taste is much better,” Crawford said. “If you put the lid down, it’s a smoker. If you keep it up, it’s a grill. We only use wood. The taste is better. The dried oak wood provides a better flavor because it burns longer.”
The atmosphere at Eli’s is as laid back as the owner himself. A cotton tree stands at the front of the property, next to a sign that reads “It’s Cotton Picking Time.” Towering oaks shade the picnic tables below where locals dine. The menu is simple. Ribs, chicken and chopped beef, pork and sausage are available in sandwiches and dinners and feature Crawford’s special seasoning. All dinners are served with Crawford’s coleslaw and baked beans. Customers pay in cash only at the walk-up window.
The prices are reasonable, ranging from $4.25 for a chopped sausage sandwich to $8.50 for a ribs dinner. Family-size options, which include a 16-ounce container of coleslaw and a 16-ounce selection of baked beans, vary from $12.50 for one pound of sausage and $15 for a pound of pork, to $17 for a pound a beef or a whole chicken and $27 for a slab of ribs.
Regulars know first-hand that it is best to arrive early when Eli’s is open. Sometimes, Crawford runs out of menu items. Barbecue enthusiasts rave about Eli’s. One woman spent more than $100 buying three pounds of pork and shipping it overnight to her sister in Alaska. And there is the tale of the man who left his dentures on a picnic table after savoring the ribs.
“They are so tender that you don’t need your dentures to eat them,” Crawford said with a smile, flashing a gold tooth. “One guy left his teeth on the table and left without them after finishing an order of ribs. I guess he forgot where they were because he never came back to get them.”
Crawford, 69, developed a fondness for barbecue as a kid growing up in Valdosta, Ga., in what he calls the barbecue belt. With his seven brothers and seven sisters, Crawford recalls helping his parents make homegrown feasts centered around barbecue. When he was 17, he worked for a corner market where he learned how to transform a hog into sausage.
In 1967, Crawford made his way to the Tampa area and worked for several years as a butcher and also applying stucco on homes. He opened a small cart on Highland Avenue in Clearwater and one day in 1997, he saw an ice cream stand for rent in Dunedin.
“I wanted something bigger than just a cart, and this seemed like the ideal spot,” Crawford said.
Crawford transformed the stand into a barbecue hut, refurbishing the kitchen and building an outdoor screened “shack” behind the restaurant. A friend welded an eight-foot grill that was originally a water tank. Crawford spends much of his time in the Big Foot grill house, but emerges occasionally to talk and posing for photos with customers.
Later this year, Crawford estimates, he will hand over the head pitmaster role to the 40-year-old Davis, who once operated his own barbecue cart in Tarpon Springs and has worked with Crawford for several years. Eli’s namesake has three sons and one daughter, and considers Davis a fourth son. Crawford’s grandchildren work at the stand, and his wife of 14 years, Veronica, helps as well.
“I thought about selling the place a few years back, but customers had a fit, so I decided to stay,” Crawford said. “When I step back and Eric takes over, I’ll still be around. I won’t disappear. This place is big part of my life.”
Crawford is so passionate about cooking that Veronica doesn’t lift a hand in their kitchen at home. Soul food is his specialty. He especially likes cornbread made on top of the stove. He even grows collard, mustards and other greens in the garden next to the grill house.
There are other barbecue restaurants in Dunedin, but Crawford doesn’t worry about losing business, even in a sluggish economy. Eli’s is a Dunedin landmark. People flock from all over the Tampa Bay area for his succulent barbecue.
“When that new barbeque restaurant (Dunedin Smokehouse) opened down the street, people asked me what I thought,” Crawford said. “I told them it didn’t bother me because we have our own following. There are people whose first stop after landing at the airport is here, not home.”
Crawford has received numerous requests to sell his stand, but he has refused. Regulars would like him to expand his days of operation, but he prefers to keep Eli’s a must-visit destination on Friday and Saturday.
“People ask me why we’re not opened on Sunday,” Crawford said with a grin. “They want a place to eat after church so they don’t have to cook. I tell them I’m in church on Sunday, too, so I don’t have time to cook that morning.”
Crawford excuses himself from a conversation by the grill house when a snowbird couple invites him to pose for a photograph. He obliges and leaves the grilling to Davis. A woman asks him about the Boston butt, and he tells her it’s so tender she won’t need a knife.
“I never get tired of talking about barbecue,” Crawford said. “And maybe one day that man who found out just how tender our ribs are might return for his teeth.”