Craig Hunter, owner of Big Mama's BBQ Express (5900 St. Clair Avenue, East St. Louis; 618-398-8950) in East St. Louis, says the counter-service joint has never needed ads to attract patrons.
Through decades of business and the COVID-19 pandemic, it's instead relied on the rave referrals of hotel bellhops, conventiongoers and others that bring customers rolling into the city's top-rated restaurant.
"Now, some people are not going to go to East St. Louis and eat barbecue because of the stigma of East St. Louis," he says. "But ... word of mouth is so powerful and so strong."
The concept began 22 years ago when Hunter and his wife went to Orlando. They waited a long time at a barbecue spot only to receive an underwhelming product.
"We thought we could do such a better job," he says.
The couple drove back home, where they spotted a "For Rent" sign at the former storefront of a Chinese restaurant on West Main Street in Belleville. The next day, they called the listed number and signed a lease the day after that. That led to a successful run in Belleville.
But 14 years later, Hunter decided to take a chance on East St. Louis.
"We wanted to go back toward East St. Louis and see if we can make a difference and do something down here to kind of uplift the community," he says.
A lot of people thought the move wouldn't work, Hunter says.
The new location seems unassuming at first. The restaurant sits wedged between a resale shop and correctional facility at the corner of St. Clair Avenue and North Kingshighway in a brick building that Hunter says is undersized.
But at that location — in a city that residents and businesses have been leaving for over half a century — Big Mama's has thrived for seven years.
"We knew that if somebody brought a good product down here and actually cared about the people, that it would actually work," Hunter says.
Lorenzo Jones, who does a lot of the pit work, gets to Big Mama's at seven in the morning on a typical day. He oversees the restaurant's two giant smokers as they revolve brisket, spare ribs and more.
Unlike other St. Louis area joints, Hunter says the meat gets barbecued barrel-style, rotating over high heat for two to 2 1/2 hours.
The restaurant is perhaps most known for its snoots, a fatty cut from the pig's face. Big Mama's ships them out by the hundreds to Chicago and elsewhere.
"I guarantee it: We sell the most snoots in the country," Hunter says.
The first bite can be intimidating, Hunter admits. Even though the cut never hits a fryer, the meat is crispy and snaps — then melts — in the mouth. It tastes like a more substantial version of a pork rind that's enhanced with a smokiness that comes from the barrel and a char developed by the high heat.
Big Mama's signature sauce smothers the snoot, adding heat and sweetness that complements the otherwise savory dish. With the second, third and fourth bites, you might become addicted.
Big Mama's also offers the more traditional beef and pork cuts you might find throughout St. Louis. Charles Kezirian — a Shiloh resident who first went to Big Mama's in Belleville and remained a patron after it moved — swears by the three-pound jumbo pork steaks.
"It's big and delicious, and you gotta be hungry," says Kezirian, who passed two acclaimed barbecue spots on the way to Big Mama's.
The restaurant also serves the unfortunately named cooter sandwich, which comes smothered with pulled chicken, loaded fries and a secret chili-style sauce that looks more like a chipotle mayo. Even through the layers of toppings, you can still taste a nutty char in the chicken and feel the hit of spice in the sauce. It's a monster of a dish that gives the energy of viral food, even though it was around way before social media.
With its cooters, chicken wings and fresh salads, Big Mama's affordable menu pulls through for classic barbecue fans or younger customers looking for funkier and healthier choices. Despite the restaurant's historic run in the Metro East, young talent does a lot of the cooking at Big Mama's.
Jones first started working at the restaurant when he was 23 and asked a friend for job recommendations. Now, nine years later, he calls Hunter a mentor.
Big Mama's sauces line Schnucks' shelves. The restaurant can sell up to 300 slices of cake a day. Hunter even says Big Mama's has won nonprofit UCP Heartland's Wing Ding competition. But he's most proud of something else.
"The people who work for me, one of the biggest things that I can do is I can show them that there is a way for them to make it," he says.
On a Thursday earlier this month, Hunter bounced around the front of the house, chatting with almost every customer who walked through the door. He pointed out that those walking in, ranging from the construction worker to employees with top-secret status at Scott Air Force Base, were of all strata and races.
The day before, Hunter closed the restaurant for the day to take a group of employees he was mentoring to Six Flags. Last year, they went to New Orleans.
Hunter says young people in East St. Louis are not offered the same opportunities as those elsewhere. When they grow older, many of them will need to travel outside its jurisdiction for quality jobs, he says.
"We need jobs out here," he says. "We need Amazon — we need these marijuana plants — and all these places that have these jobs."
In the future, Hunter plans to open an additional Big Mama's location in St. Louis with some of the employees he is training as co-owners. As for the Metro East location, he hopes it stays open forever.
"I believe that if you come here, people will support you, 110 percent," he says. "I believe that if you [and your business] are successful ... you have an obligation to help a community like this."
But for East St. Louis, Hunter says he wants even more.
"We gotta make our community just as nice as O'Fallon and Fairview Heights, and get people buying some houses," he says. "But I don't want to preach."