By Shari Valenta
Hungry pilots flying through Paola, Kansas, now have an exclusive choice for barbecue. Located at Miami County Airport (K81), We B Smokin’ is becoming famous in aviation circles for their smoky, tender baby back ribs. The fly-in eatery is all the rage on www.100dollarhamburger.com. They were also recently featured on Bobby Flay’s “Crazy Q” show on the Food Network.
We B Smokin’ is located in the terminal building of Miami County Airport.
“We’ve had more planes than cars out front before,” said one of the owners, Gloria Bright. “To drive to us, you have to know we’re there. In fact, a gentleman that was interviewed on Bobby Flay’ show said that he only knows how to fly here, and doesn’t know how to drive to us.”
We B Smokin’ is the only restaurant at the rural airport, located halfway between Paola and Osawatomie, Kansas. A government grant was obtained to pay for runways, a terminal building and drainage after a group of interested citizens in 1947 thought there was a need for a general aviation facility in Miami County. Over the years, federal grants were obtained for further expansion projects.
In 1985, the county was doing very little to maintain the site, so a group of pilots formed the Miami County Airport Association. This group would donate its own time, money and equipment to repair and keep up the airport. They started an annual event called Airport Day during which they presented displays, hosted contests and provided airplane rides to promote the airport.
The event has grown larger each year. In 1989, a new hangar was constructed and the terminal building was leased for a restaurant. While many restaurants have utilized the location in the past, We B Smokin’ claims the space currently and there are no plans to add more.
In 2000, a federal grant paid for more renovations including a new runway, a self-service fuel system and a new concrete ramp. In September 2004, construction began on asphalt taxiways around all of the hangars. The airport is busy on the weekends; it’s not unusual to have 100 airplanes visiting on a sunny day.
“We pray for beautiful days so the pilots come in, because they’re 30 percent of our business and are really good people. They’re interesting to talk to,” commented Bright. “It’s funny, we never really knew anyone who had a plane, so it’s new to us, but people like having us here. I’m partial because it’s our restaurant, but they didn’t have the pilots come in the way they do now. The gas is the lowest, but I hear the reason they go to Miami County Airport is because of the food, first, and the gas, second.”
As far as food goes, one can expect to find all the barbecue basics, such as pork ribs, beef tenderloin sandwiches, coleslaw, crispy fries and flavorful beans. The specialty however, is the baby back ribs.
“It’s our signature and we take very much pride in our ribs,” said Bright. “We’ve won blue ribbons for them at competitions. We drizzle them with honey and pour on the barbecue sauce. In the KC Barbecue Association, we took first in the ribs overall for the year 2000.”
In addition to award-winning ribs, a six-dollar lunch special is available; it comes with a sandwich, a side and a drink. This pilot pit stop is also open for breakfast, but closed on Monday so the owners can spend time with their four granddaughters.
We B Smokin’ is a family-run operation. Owners Terry and Gloria Bright have nine employees, as well as a daughter and son that pitch in to help now and then. The Brights purchased the restaurant three years ago from the previous owner who didn’t care for the long hours involved in running a business.
The Brights hosted barbecue competitions 10 to 12 times a year for 30 years until their son took over so they could start the restaurant. They acquired the location from a contestant at a barbecue competition in Paola.
“Terry’s always wanted to own his own restaurant,” Bright explained, “At first I said, ‘I don’t know; it could use a lot of work,’ but then I thought that this could be the opportunity we were looking for.”
The couple settled on the place and decorated it with Kansas City Chief football collectibles and their barbecue contest ribbons.
Long before their restaurant dream became a reality, Terry and Gloria were high school sweethearts. Terry learned to cook while working for Gloria’s father, a proprietor of a restaurant called Sidney’s.
“You can take two chefs and give them the same recipe and it wouldn’t come out the same,” she said. “When Terry makes it, he put his heart in it. He’s the heart of the cooking; what I do is make sure the food gets out to the customers hot.”
When Bright is not managing piping hot plates of ribs, she enjoys observing the younger customers.
“Watching the kids is the biggest highlight for me,” she said. “I know a lot of kids are finicky eaters. The parents say their kids love to see the planes come in, but also love the food. They climb up to the window and say, ‘Here comes one,’ or, ‘There goes one!’ The parents tell me their kids don’t eat like this anywhere else.”
Whether you’re on a road trip with the family or taking your Cessna out for a spin, Paola is the pilots’ pit stop for affordable gas and award winning barbecue.
We B Smokin’ is located at 32580 Airport Drive. For more information, call 913-256-6802.