WHAT BEGAN AS AN AWARD-WINNING GOURMET SAUCE AND SEASONING BUSINESS FOUND ITSELF BEING AGED AND ENHANCED INTO WEST MONROE’S NEWEST FLAVORFUL PITSTOP, JAC’S CRAFT SMOKEHOUSE
article by VANELIS RIVERA and photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
Food ministry is not an unfamiliar term to most southern residents. Whether fellowship is being shared at a family gathering, church luncheon, or even just a local diner, what is served from kitchen to table is often considered a service that not many take for granted. In Christianity, ministry is often associated with expressing or spreading faith, which can take many forms. For Kristi and Tracy Carter, that service extends to their community by way of craft barbecue. Beyond the food is the couple’s calling to express their love of their passion while also meeting their community’s needs. What began as an award-winning gourmet sauce and seasoning business found itself being aged and enhanced into West Monroe’s newest flavorful pitstop, JAC’s Craft Smokehouse.
“I’m originally from Delhi, but I’m a military brat,” says Tracy. Around 2005, the couple started JAC’s Tailgaters, where they ended up producing about forty sauce and seasoning products altogether. At its conception, their products were making the rounds at craft and trade shows, even as Kristi and Tracy were juggling this venture with maintaining full-time jobs and raising children. The result? Forty-two national awards,“And it just kind of ballooned from there,” Tracy adds.
Instinctively, they began using their products to make meals for people in need during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season, when they would either hand out food plates or buy meals for families in order for them to build memories together while cooking for themselves. The couple would also give away their products with recipes, hoping to encourage aspiring cooks to take the first steps toward the blessing of creating home-cooked meals. Gratitude has always been at the foundation of their business and is reflected in the name JAC’s. Tracy’s son, Jordan Alan Carter, was born prematurely and extremely ill. In and out of the hospital for some time, Tracy considered it a miracle when his son survived the health problems. He named his companies after his son’s initials J.A.C. to preserve his thankfulness for such a tremendous blessing.
Despite the early success, when Kristi took a promotion at her former job the business took a backseat. That dissolution didn’t last, however, and a year later Tracy decided to buy a food trailer. “Yeah, he couldn’t stay out of it very long,” laughs Kristi. The additional wheels allowed them to attend festivals and even get into the catering business. When COVID-19 hit, their meals-on-wheels was one of the few places people could pick up food. “I always knew that God was calling us to getting away from the corporate life, putting us in a place that we could be more of a ministry,” explains Tracy. “With that said, we just prayed one day when we were out feeding people. I said, God, if you really want me to do this, you got to make a way.” Three weeks later, Tracy got his pink slip from his day job. He wasn’t surprised. The couple had been making strides to use their meals as a service. When the 2016 flood hit Northeast Louisiana, the couple alongside the organization Operation BBQ Relief, were able to feed 55,000 people in the Twin Cities.
Around the time that “God kicked him out” of his job, as Kristi puts it, the property at 401 Trenton Street became available. It seemed out of the blue, but it really was all hinging on a hope and a prayer. “My wife said ten years ago that one day, this place is going to be ours,” reveals Tracy, with Kristi adding, “Everything just fell into place. We felt like it was supposed to be, so we knew that was God’s answer.” Financially, they were confident they could open a restaurant because of the severance pay Tracy had received. It didn’t take long for Kristi to take her own leap of faith, quitting her job in September to embark on their new full-time positions as restaurant owners. “It’s been a big step and it’s a lot, but, I mean, it has all worked out,” she says. Though they acted on an impulse, the Carters had been considering the restaurant upgrade for some time. For that reason, one of their first hires was a marketing and social media director. For the task, they chose a friend and their former food truck window operator Rachel Nance, who also became a partner in the business. “This whole experience has been a huge learning curve and so much fun,” says Rachel, who has had marketing experience before, but discloses that when it comes to JAC’s, she’s never before had a hand in something that “basically sold itself.”
It also didn’t hurt the couple’s new venture that the historic building had already been renovated to cater to a restaurant, as it used to be a coffee shop and bakery. “God had laid the path,” says Kristi. They didn’t have to do much to the interior; the motif was already laid out for them, like the exposed brick walls and bay doors original to the building. They opted to just subtly add their own flare. Their tables are made from hundred-year-old barn wood and industrial-style metal legs. Design-wise, they kept the decor very minimal. Their large menu boards stand out well, mounted over the register, while the wall across holds the only statement piece the establishment needs, a showstopper by local artist Ashley Alford-Dollar. The black and white piece is hard to miss, juxtaposed nicely with the aged red brick. Painted in a print-block style, it illustrates the “old” union mill and courthouse. “We just wanted the building to speak for itself,” says Tracy, clearly intending to honor the area’s distinct history and compelling aesthetic.
With the extent of their travels, Kristi and Tracy were able to fall in love with flavors that made their way into JAC’s Smokehouse favorites. Two regions, in particular, shaped what they currently offer–the sweet yet tangy Carolina pork style and the Central Texas-style of smoked brisket and beef ribs. “The best of both worlds with a little JAC’d up twist,” as is expressed in the restaurant’s website. Though no longer in the rub and sauce business, they still utilize those products for the food items on their menu. Not calling themselves a smokehouse for show, Tracy takes great pride in all of their smoked meats: pulled pork, chopped or sliced brisket, ham, turkey, and sausage. Most barbecue places rely on their pulled pork, and rightfully so, but JAC’s has put all their effort to make their brisket the “star of the restaurant,” while their turkey breast is easily one of their top supporting acts. Ribs are also on the menu, flavorful, and “smoked to perfection.” Though their meat plates are naturally popular, you can have a taste of their meats by way of their “handhelds.” While you’ll see a few classics like the pulled pork, brisket, and club sandwich, a few options get a bit creative. The Brisket Melt is their smoky chopped brisket, brown sugar caramelized onions, and melted pepper jack cheese served on toasted rye bread brushed with garlic butter. Piled high with pulled pork and smoked ham, their Bayou Cuban is an instant hit. It’s melted with Havarti cheese, slathered in creole mustard, pressed together on lightly-toasted Gambino’s po-boy bread, and topped with a pickle.
Unlike their food trailer concoctions, the larger kitchen has allowed his team to bring some other visions to their food, stuff like their deep-fried Brussels sprouts, generously drizzled with house-made balsamic glaze. Their deviled eggs are “upgraded” with smoked pimento cheese and raspberry chipotle glaze. “Well, like I like to call them, ‘angel eggs’ because I don’t have no devils working for me,” laughs Tracy. More starters from the “Tracy unleashed” menu that are as unconventional as they are tasty include the Poblano Cornbread, a crispy house-made cornbread with lightly roasted poblano peppers served with a creamy whipped maple butter. On the cheesier side is the Mac Attack: creamy mac and cheese, topped with your choice of pulled pork or chopped brisket, drizzled with one of their craft barbecue sauces, and topped with their fried pork skin crumble. For Tracy, the JAC’s menu represents the “monster inside,” the one his wife would get mad at him if he tried to unleash in the kitchen in their previous circumstances. “We can actually do it right now,” he grins.
Having hired a pastry chef, Alex Mancuso, the JAC’s dessert section is sure to surprise and delight several times a week. “The bread pudding is to die for,” says Tracy. Recently, Mancuso made a Coca-cola cake that Kristi attests has been one of the best she’s had. Their banana pudding, Tracy and Kristi’s concoction, is made with dulce de leche (slowly heated sweetened milk) and is a crowd-pleaser. The pastry side of the restaurant is already making waves during the morning because JAC’s opens at 7 a.m.! They have espresso machines and drip coffee at the ready, a light breakfast that consists of muffins, cinnamon rolls, banana bread, and home-made biscuits. It’s a grab-and-go set-up, but it is their contribution to the hustle and bustle of anyone needing a morning pick me up if their way to work happens to be near Trenton Street, or even if it requires a slight detour.
“My wife and I seem to have a calling to help people,” says Tracy. For the couple, their new restaurant provides them the means to continue serving their community and those in need. As a veteran-owned business (Tracy is a disabled veteran), they want to be able to produce their best. They’re not just doing that with their food, but also their staff. “All his employees will tell you this: Tracy is a wonderful person to work with. He’s truly invested in the success and happiness of everyone employed here, and the happiness of every customer,” beams Rachel. Even then, Tracy’s approach to his food and business is simple, “We’re developing. We’re building memories one bite at a time.”
JAC’s Craft Smokehouse is located at 401 Trenton Street West Monroe. It is open Tuesday through Thursday between 7 AM to 8 PM and Friday through Saturday between 7 AM to 9 PM. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, particularly to find out more about their developing breakfast menu.