Top: Brent Walton, owner of the QN4U BBQ House in Clovis, presents some of his championship barbecue at the Central California Rib Cook-off in downtown Fresno on Aug. 21. Bottom left: Walton seasons ribs in his kitchen, and shows off his Fast Eddy 750 cooker in the back of his restaurant. The cooker holds up to 700 pounds of meat. Bottom right: Walton with his trophy case in the QN4U BBQ House. He has earned money in competitions all over the country. (Photos by Ralph Berrett)
Clovis, CA (Sept. 1, 2010) – Brent Walton had his own diner-style restaurant in Eagle Mountain, Calif., when he was only 19, and sold it only a few years later for what he considered at the time was a lot of money.
“I sold it for a whole bunch of money, more than I’d ever seen in my whole life,” Walton said. “Today I look back and it wasn’t very much money.”
The reason Walton sold the restaurant at age 22 was because of his desire to become a firefighter. He took fire science programs at Fresno City College, and was going to work for the City of Madera as a firefighter. At the time his brother-in-law had an air conditioning business, and he asked Walton to help him. Walton ended up purchasing the business from him and changing the name to Brent Walton Heating and Cooling. After 23 years he lost his interest in the company, and because of the stress he had a pair of heart attacks, one in 2000 and another in 2003.
“That meant I needed to change my life, so that was a signal to me,” Walton said. “And that’s how barbecue came into my life.”
Walton had always been fond of barbecuing, and he would do parties for employees, always taking care of the cooking.
“I’ve been barbecuing for my hobby, let’s say, all along,” he said. “It’s something I did, and I enjoyed it a lot.”
Walton eventually learned of sanctioned barbecuing contests, and entered one in San Diego, which was put on by the California Barbecue Association, after finding out all the details.
“I did pretty good,” he said. “I finished in kind of the middle of the pack, but I did win the seafood category, within San Diego. I cooked shrimp for that category.
“I was really hooked that day. I knew that this was what I really wanted to do.”
That first contest is considered the birthplace of QN4U. Walton came up with the name thinking that it would look good on a license plate.
Walton and his wife, Kim, had been doing well, winning competitions and keeping a good name, particularly in California. The pair also did catering, including a job at a Fresno State University football game for a major bank. Someone came up to Walton at the game, saying the food was unlike any he had ever eaten before, and wanted to know all about barbecue, the way the sauces were made and the meat was cooked. Walton began to hear from people that he should open up a restaurant.
He knew of a building in Clovis that had been vacant for a while, so he called the landlord. In Dec. 2007 he got a call from a real estate agent and said the landlord wanted to meet with him. He and the landlord met, and Walton had mixed feelings. Built in 1978, the building was old and needed repairs. It turns out the owner of the center the building was in was a friend of the man Walton had met at the football game. He told the center’s owner that Walton wanted to lease the building, which formerly housed Aldo’s Pizza.
“The landlord called me and we met, and I had the keys that afternoon,” Walton said.
In March of 2008 the QN4U BBQ House officially opened its doors. At the same time he and Kim were laying out their barbecue travel schedule for 2008, in addition to doing catering jobs. Walton advertised for employees and got a huge response, particularly on Craigslist. He originally hired about 40 people, and that number is about 26 today.
Walton said the QN4U BBQ House is the first restaurant he’s ever known that offers menu that offers barbecue solely.
“Our menu is pretty simple, we thought, and that’s what we intended it to be,” Walton said. “We wanted to focus on barbecue.”
Walton wanted items on the restaurant’s menu that were entirely unique. The signature unique item, the “Texas Tommie,” is a giant 12 ? inch hot dog stuffed with jalapenos and sharp cheddar cheese, wrapped in bacon and deep-fried. The “Hot Sandy” is an open-faced turkey sandwich, consisting of smoked turkey topped with a cheese sauce, bacon and basil. The “Pitmaster’s Salad” is a salad with grilled vegetables around it with a sliced New York Steak on top. Other trademark items are the “Chicken Cluckers,” chicken nuggets made at the restaurant, and the sweet potato fries.
“I like it all, so for me I get a pick at the pulled pork and the brisket every day probably in the morning,” Walton said. “I just want to taste it and make sure it’s as good as I think it is.”
Also on the menu is the “Best Burger Ever,” a half-pound hamburger with beef bacon and topped with QN4U’s own “Qpotle Sauce.”
“If you work here you’ve got to love food, because it’s easy to have food processors and all those gimmicks and mixers, we don’t have any of that,” Walton said. “Everything’s by hand.”
When he and Kim spent more time on the competitive barbecue circuit, they would win as much as $10,000 in prize money in one contest. Since the popularity of barbecue has grown, prizes are now higher, Walton said. In special competitions one can make up to $40,000 to $50,000. In a normal contest, the Waltons would earn an average of $2,500 to $5,000, bringing in money in almost every competition they would enter.
“We had a good time, it was like being barbecue gypsies for a couple of years,” Walton said.
Walton teaches a competition barbecue class called “Barbecue Like a Champion,” where he gets to hand down his knowledge of barbecuing to students. The clientele is mostly people who have just started barbecuing. The competition class lasts for 24 hours, and is set up as a mock barbecue contest. A short mock barbecue judging class is also included, to help students better understand what judges look for. Awards are given at the end of the class. The classes have been taught in California, Arizona, Utah and Washington.
Inside the QN4U BBQ House is a trophy case filled with awards won from years of competition. His most valued trophy is the Save Mart Red Hot and Real BBQ Championship in Clovis in 2007, of which he was named grand champion. In 2005 Walton started the ClovisFest Red Hot and Real Barbecue Championship, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recognized as a state championship. He gave the event to Save Mart in 2006 so he could compete in it and win once.
Walton also holds a championship belt from a state championship barbecue event that was held in Modesto, Calif.
“It’s probably one of the most valuable trophies ever in barbecue I think,” he said.
More recently, QN4U took part in the Central California Rib Cook-off, held in downtown Fresno from Aug. 20-22.
In the back of the QN4U BBQ House is a Fast Eddy 750 cooker, made by Cookshack. It is a custom-made red smoker that can hold about 700 pounds of meat. The cooker is in operation for about 16 hours a day. It gets lit at 9:30 every night, and the briskets and pork butts go in first for about 12 hours. The ribs are put in about 7:30 a.m., and the chicken and turkey goes in at 9 a.m. Unlike ovens, it uses wood smoke and low heat.
Walton also uses a portable Western Rebel smoker, which also acts as a rotisserie, for when he is on the road. He has rebuilt it from the tanks up.
“I can do things with meat that nobody else can do at all on here with any of the smokers that I’ve ever seen,” Walton said. “I enjoy this smoker, and I think it cooks better than anything else.”
Walton says that at the restaurant Kim is better at customer service, while he prefers to be in the back overseeing cooking operations. For competitions, Kim helps him prepare the food and get everything loaded.
In the future, Walton would like QN4U to be the number one California barbecue hotspot.
“That’s the goal, is to be the barbecue destination,” he said.