Grandmother Stokely taught Eric Lupton, the current owner of Stokely’s BBQ, everything he knows about food. He spent his childhood summers at his grandmother’s home in eastern North Carolina, and after years of baking cakes and smoking pigs, Lupton decided to go into the restaurant business.
He spent 20 years working in the research and development division of Houlihan’s restaurant group. But nearly two years ago, he found a way to combine his dream with his grandmother’s culinary legacy: Stokely’s BBQ and More.
Known as “A Taste of the Carolinas,” Stokely’s has classic southern foods and powerful flavors into its modest storefront along South Church Streey. Behind the sign overshadowed by its next-door neighbor, Food Lion, is an open dining room with wooden furniture, booths and free-standing tables alongside the small waiting area with a register and hostess stand.
Lupton’s goal when opening Stokely’s was to create a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere without the “mom-and-pop” environment. Though the scent of the smoker drifts out of the kitchen, the restaurant manages to avoid the greasy humidity of most barbecue joints.
The simple decor consists of mirrored windowpanes in distressed white paint and dark wood floors to evoke a sense of comfort in all who dine in at Stokely’s. Lupton wants each visitor to “feel warm and fuzzy” when they enter.
For anyone on a mission for good barbecue, Stokely’s meats are smoked in-house, and the menu offers classics like chicken and brisket alongside unexpected dishes such as clam strips and broiled scallops.
Though the menu is extensive, Lupton tries to keep the operation small. He and his wife, the co-owner, hired local help and a few students they believe make patrons feel welcome.
“We wanted to start somewhere small and try to build it big,” Lupton said. “We don’t want to be a major franchise. We wanted to keep everything homey style.”
Stokely’s also offers a line of homemade barbecue sauces. The Eastern Sauce has a peppered vinegar base that Lupton said “you either love or hate.” The Lexington Sauce is a sweet, never spicy sauce with a vinegar and tomato base. The third sauce is the traditional thick, sweet and smoky sauce most barbecue lovers connect with ribs and chicken.
They consider themselves lucky to have a support system based on customer loyalty and individual relationships.
“I’m proud of it,” Lupton said. “We worked hard to get here. This has been my dream for about 15 years. You want to find the right timing to do something, and that’s what we’ve felt like we’ve done.”
This Mother’s Day, Stokely’s will celebrate its second birthday. Even though Grandmother Stokely’s techniques and passion led to the restaurant’s offerings, she never got the chance to see its success.
“I brought Stokely’s to life, which I wanted to have done before my grandmother passed away,” Lupton said. “She was 99. She passed away the day before we opened, but she knew what we were doing and she was aware that it was going to be named after her. She was happy for us. She said, ‘You go get ’em.’”
Stokely’s has tried to make her proud and completed more than 40 caterings and deliveries for graduation alone last year. They plan to expand, and Lupton said his ideal additional locations will be near college towns similar to Elon.
“I hadn’t gotten that far,” Lupton admitted. “I get so busy here that we truly have a hard time focusing on the future. I would say somewhere centrally located in the outskirts of a town. We don’t want to be in such a big town that people can’t really get the true feel of what we’re about.”
Lupton is committed to a localized operation. All his meats and seafood are sourced from in and around North Carolina and the bread for Stokely’s po’ boys come from a bakery in Cary.
He buys his ingredients locally because, as a North Carolina native, Lupton has traveled all across the state, and he knows what it has to offer. Lupton kept track of his journey on the “Great N.C. BBQ Map” hanging next to the register.
Stokely’s has also supported the Elon University community through a profit share with women’s club softball.
“I had never been before the fundraiser, but I have always heard great things about Stokely’s,” said sophomore Casey McVicar, club softball president. “All of the workers were very nice and willing to answer any questions we had.”
His support of local organizations continues in the “Wall of Hope” near the door. Hanging from it are certificates of diners who have donated to Helping Other People Eat (H.O.P.E.), a charity started by Elon junior Jensen Roll.
“It’s been a good dream, and we’re working hard to make it and hopefully expand it out,” Lupton said. “We really feel that area appreciates good stuff.”