Lewis Donald asked me if I had my tennis shoes on, not a question I expected when I showed up to interview him.
I looked down at my loafers.
“Are these OK?” I asked, showing him my minimalist footwear. Donald approved, then immediately went back to work. I followed close behind, ducking, shifting and trying to stay out of the way as he weaved around the tight kitchen of Sweet Lew’s BBQ, his recently opened restaurant in the Belmont neighborhood.
Donald and Laura Furman Grice opened Sweet Lew’s doors in early December, turning an old service station into the unassuming barbecue joint it is now. The transition was easy, Donald said. In fact, the building’s owner had already decided there should be a restaurant on the lot and prepped for one by adding a parking lot, a grease trap and other necessary features to operate a small eatery.
“It was all laid out before he and I even met,” Donald said as he stirred a huge vat of stew. “So this was kind of a turnkey situation.”
He transferred the stew from the ginormous pot on the stove into two large Cambro pans. An equally large pot was brimming with collard greens, simmering on the stove next to the now-empty stew pot. The smells coming from the collard greens, smoking meat and the Brunswick stew were delectable.
Donald moved the pans, now full of the housemade stew, to the back and onto a table next to the Myron Mixon H2O smoker.
Sweet Lew’s has a “full disclosure” policy, Donald told me, and he enjoys bringing patrons back to the smoker and opening up the military-grade insulated fire doors to expose the giant, smoking slabs of shoulder.
“You’re not going to find a smoke shop like this in Charlotte, where you can just walk up, talk to me, see what meat’s going in,” he explained. “I bring people back here all day, every day. I love bringing people back here.”
It was then that I understood why he didn’t want to sit down down for a run-of-the-mill chat, instead choosing to keep me on his heels as he went about his business.
A few customers came in, so it was time to tend to the front counter, where puddings, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and a heat cabinet holding the day’s brisket, pork and chicken were waiting to be piled onto buns, trays and to-go boxes.
Donald smoothly chopped up some pork for a sandwich while he compared his meat recipes.
“The ribs are dry rub, kind of Memphis [style],” he said between chopping pork for sandwich orders and carving chicken for another customer. “The pork’s more Carolina — just salt and pepper.”
The brisket is a Texas thing, he said, while the chicken is brined, Alabama-style.
As he finished up customers’ orders, Donald cleaned the carving board for the next round of hungry patrons and put the extra chopped pork back in a pan to go in the hot holding cabinet under the counter.
“In a perfect world, one day, 20 years from now, we’re going to be in the same kind of arena of like Price’s Chicken Coop,” he said, referencing a South End staple, “where we’re one of those things you have to do when you come to the city.”
Building that sort of reputation will take time, but for now, Donald said he’s happy to be serving those in and around the Belmont neighborhood. He’s proud of his Belmont home, and has already stated he has no intention of opening a second location.
While tending to the collard greens still on the stove, Donald gestured broadly out the window next to us, toward the rest of the neighborhood.
“There’s no other place in the city that I would open a Sweet Lew’s. It’s the only neighborhood left,” Donald said. “Plaza Midwood is already Plaza Midwood. Look at [Belmont], I’ve got houses right next to me this way and that way. Bus stops, churches. I don’t think there’s an area like this in the city. This wouldn’t have worked in South End, you know what I mean?”
Donald also employs a few folks from inside the neighborhood. One was slicing cucumbers and chuckled when Donald joked that she wouldn’t have come work at Sweet Lew’s if it wasn’t stationed in Belmont.
Donald and his staff only cook food over wood and flame and he himself refuses to be referred to as a chef. It’s not what you would expect from someone who’s classically trained for 20-plus years and has worked in every type of food industry establishment, from restaurants to country clubs.
When he opened Sweet Lew’s, Donald wanted to hone in on one area of expertise: barbecue. If you’re looking for anything else, don’t bother showing up, he said.
“I don’t want to be everything to everyone,” he said pointedly.
Searing foie gras and making duck confit is behind him now. It’s about community and family. With two children, 13 and 16 years old, he wanted a restaurant that his kids could help out in, earn a couple bucks, learn some responsibility and develop a work ethic.
“I wanted a place that I could work and feel good and that my kids could work,” he said.
We moved to the back, where Donald opened the smoker and shined a flashlight inside, directing me to the water pan under the racks.
Myron Mixon H2O smokers have a pan of water under each rack to help regulate the temperature and catch grease as it falls off the meat so as not to contaminate the wood, which would alter the taste from the smoke. Vents on the front and back pull the smoke from the burning wood underneath the pan to the racks above, smoking the meat consistently.
The smoker has an automatic water flow regulator that ensures there’s always water in the pan, but Donald likes the control of adding water as he sees fit.
There are no gas lines that feed into the smoker, which is why Sweet Lew’s motto is “Cooked With Wood.”
We closed the doors of the smoker, which was filled to about 10-percent capacity. The meat would be for tomorrow’s customers, and when it runs out, that’s closing time. Donald has to be careful not to put too much meat in; if it doesn’t sell, there’s not much he can do with the leftovers.
Donald emptied some of the water in the pan from a spout in the back of the smoker and checked the wood underneath.
The simplicity of Sweet Lew’s recipes and Donald’s philosophy toward cooking Southern-style sides and smoking melt-in-your-mouth meats is something that Charlotte has been losing. There’s more than enough farm-to-table eateries and small-plate restaurants that fill the crevices of Charlotte’s food landscape, but it seems that while everyone is reaching above and beyond to provide the next level in dining, the comfort dishes and cozy atmosphere of family-run BBQ joints like this new gem are fading.
With Sweet Lew’s BBQ, finding the simple but delicious food isn’t so hard anymore, and maybe it is for a lack of trying.
“I’m not chasing Michelin Stars or James Beard Awards,” Donald said. “I’m just cooking food.”