Hugh Knoth was a new business owner when we first wrote about Knoth’s Bar-B-Que in October 1976, but he’d already honed the concept that would make his restaurant a western Kentucky classic: pork and beef smoked low and slow over hickory coals and served with his secret barbecue sauce.
Knoth’s parents opened the restaurant, which is served by Jackson Purchase Energy Cooperative, in 1965. Knoth worked in the restaurant after finishing high school and took it over from his parents in 1975. Until his retirement in 2017, he navigated economic ups and downs, the daily challenges of the restaurant business and a devastating fire in 1992 that destroyed his original location 1/2 mile east of Barkley Dam. The whole time, his rule for success could be summed up in a word—consistency.
“If you see us making changes,” he said during a 2017 interview with Southern Foodways Alliance, “it means we’re going out of business. We’ve been the same since 1965.”
Hickory was Knoth’s wood of choice when we wrote about the restaurant in 1976, and it’s still the same today—but really, he said, any hardwood would do. “The type of wood doesn’t add to the flavor … how can it?” he told us. “It’s burned down to charcoal before it’s put in the pits.”
The process, not the type of wood, is where the magic really happened. Knoth would burn his fires down for about 30 minutes before smoking pork shoulders over the coals at 250-300° for 9 hours. Following the cooking period, he would leave the meat over the slowly cooling fire for another 15 hours.
Today, General Manager Stacey Fike says, consistency remains the heart of the restaurant’s success. She often hears stories from people who visited Knoth’s Bar-B-Que with their grandparents when they were kids. Now they are bringing their own grandchildren to enjoy slow-smoked meat that’s just as good as ever.
Popular items include brisket, which she says sells out during lunch on 99 days out of 100: “It’s a favorite, if you can get it.” The pulled pork plate with slaw and crinkle-cut fries is another best-seller. Knoth’s also offers pork by the pound, an option some customers order “like clockwork” each week, along with a bag of buns, for their Wednesday night dinner or Saturday afternoon lunch.
Now open all winter, the restaurant offers occasional seasonal sides like barbecue chili, brisket baked beans and pulled pork wraps. Year-round, customers can also find hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches, as well as the Shelby—a grilled cheese sandwich loaded with pulled pork and Knoth’s signature sauce. The sauce itself is available for purchase online and ships to appreciative customers all over the U.S.
Food isn’t the only thing that has stayed consistent with the restaurant. When Knoth retired in 2017, Ed and Meagan Musselman—investors behind several western Kentucky projects, including the renovation of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Paducah—became co-owners of the restaurant. Their agreement with Knoth allowed them to continue using Knoth’s name and recipes, and, “most priceless,” Fike says, to enjoy his continued involvement and advice. She says he comes around almost every day, visiting with customers, telling stories and jokes and sharing his decades of smoking savvy.
One lesson Knoth has learned through the years: selling out can be good for business. “When someone wants something real bad and can’t get it, it makes them want it even more,” he told Southern Foodways Alliance.
Fike has seen it firsthand. Last winter, a woman and her husband called the restaurant to order a whole case of Knoth’s barbecue sauce. They had visited Knoth’s and taken barbecue sauce home with them to Florida. On the phone, Fike learned that they had shared the sauce with neighbors during a cookout and “got cleaned out.” It turns that shipping a case of barbecue sauce to Florida isn’t cheap.
“I gave the wife that total, and her husband was in the background,” Fike says. “She told him how much, and then I heard him say, ‘That’s going to be your birthday, then!’”
Knoth’s Bar-B-Que, located at 728 U.S. Highway 62 in Grand Rivers, is open 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Monday–Saturday, closed Sunday. Learn more by visiting knoths.com or calling (270) 362-8580.