Racine chef turns job loss into a new pop-up BBQ

RACINE — Chef Emerson Holliday lost his job when COVID-19 struck. Like hundreds of thousands of other Wisconsinites, he applied for unemployment checks to stay afloat.

For years, the Gateway Technical College-trained chef said he has been putting off starting his own restaurant: “It’s too expensive.” “It’s too risky.” “I don’t have time for it.” The excuses went on.

But when the pandemic arrived, Holliday said, he didn’t have any more excuses. He certainly had free time to invest in a new venture.

“When everything shut down, I just had to do something,” he told The Journal Times of Racine, remembering the boredom of March and April.

He already has the culinary knowledge, and the friends and professional connections that can spark some word of mouth momentum to get new customers to try his barbecue.

“Do we now know that our local chefs are the best chefs?! Don’t eat those frozen chains! Eat food that is made with love and heart and soul because this food certainly is,” one customer said on Facebook.

Holliday said he had two choices: “I could just sit around and play video games, or I could invest it into what I’ve always wanted to do.”

He picked the latter. Dragon Pit BBQ is open for business at a time when a lot of other restaurants are struggling to keep the lights on.

All orders are submitted online at dragon-pit-bbq.square.site. Customers can then walk up or drive up to the parking lot behind The Branch, 1501 Washington Ave., to get their food directly from Holliday. Payment is handled online, thanks to the easy-to-use Square Appsquareup.com.

From the kitchen to his own business

A lot of restaurateurs have ideas for restaurants. But they don’t think about food enough.

That’s what Holliday thinks. And he thinks about food a lot. At parties, he says, he’s one of those people who can always be found in the kitchen.

He grew up in Racine and has worked across southeast Wisconsin at a variety of popular restaurants, including Blue’s Egg and Maxie’s in Milwaukee, and at The Maple Table on Monument Square.

He’s always been the man behind the scenes, making and loving the food.

Now he’s finally able to deliver the food he puts his heart and soul into.

Dragon Pit BBQ, which specializes in barbecue standards done right such as gumbo, pulled pork sandwiches and smothered fries, started serving in May. There also are vegan options. Holliday also sells Big Em’s Paradise Powder, a mixture of South American and West African spices inspired by Holliday’s father.

But Dragon Pit doesn’t have a traditional storefront or seating area.

Holliday bought a smoker online, in part thanks to those unemployment checks, and he can haul the smoker around with his SUV. He rents the kitchen inside The Branch at 1501 for the rest of his food prep.

Dragon Pit is only open a couple days a week, on varying weeks. To stay up to date on scheduled offerings, follow Dragon Pit BBQ on Facebook at facebook.com/dragonpittbbq. The next scheduled pop-up dates are July 14-17.

The Laotian pop-up restaurant SapSap follows the same formula, renting out the kitchen at The Branch and serving food to drive-ups in the parking lot.

To have these businesses take off, it’s not about having a cool restaurant or good branding, said SapSap owner Alex Hanesakda. “Your food has to be really good and unique,” Hanesakda said, and that’s the model Holliday is following.

Racine is the right place to start Dragon Pit, Holliday said, because “there’s a diverse palate here … a melting pot of flavors … we understand this home-cooked food idea.”

Thanks to the unique setup with The Branch, Holliday can also avoid the massive expenses of paying for a building and keeping it up while he generates revenue and a customer base. Someday, though, he hopes Dragon Pit will take over its own space.