True BBQ Fairytale
Story and photos courtesy of Laurie Neef
This is my story… October of 1999 my husband and I had just moved back to Murphysboro, Illinois so that we could raise our son close to my family. Our son was 10 months old at that time.
My little sister (sis) called and asked if I wanted to help her cater. I agreed to help out and thought it would just be a part-time gig. My sis called it “Christmas help.” It got busy during Christmas, and I thought it was over afterward.
Two months later, I was also working part-time at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIUC) when I got a call and was asked, “Are you still available?” Who knew that it was about to turn into a full-time job. Long story short, that was19 years ago and I am still here with this amazing group of people.
However, this story isn’t about me. It’s about 17th Street BBQ and the family that I love. I’ve done everything from catering, bartending, deliveries, janitorial jobs,
bookkeeping, restaurant management, general managing, employee therapist, referee, dishwasher, traveling pit crew, event organizer, and so much more. One thing that has not changed after 19 years is the fact that this is a family business.
I would not be who I am today without the influence and guidance of 17th Street family and especially Mike Mills. He is a true leader and a body of wisdom. My son was ten months old when I started working here, and in 2005 my daughter was born. All part of the 1-7 family.
My favorite story about how my two families are connected comes from the time I brought my son, Hunter, to work with me. It was a Sunday, and I was cleaning up the event room from a party that was held on the previous evening. As Hunter was driving his remote control car around the facility, out of nowhere Mike Mills, my new boss, shows up. I was nervous and thinking that I may get in trouble for having my son with me. Mike looks at my four year old and says “Who are you?”…with a grin on his face. Immediately Hunter replies, “ I’m Mike Mills!” I guess Hunter had heard me raving about my new boss multiple times over the past four years. I never again worried about taking my son to work because the smile that Mike gave me that day made me realize that family is first.
Three years later my daughter, Savannah, was born. The entire time during my pregnancy I worked and felt great. Weird that I craved barbecue the whole time and at age two Savannah could eat a rack of ribs. Never once have I hesitated about taking my kids to work or asking if it was ok. Mike has always smiled and taught them things that they still repeat today. This past month and 19 years after I started working there, out of nowhere we had a huge event happening at our facility. At the last minute, I called Hunter and asked him if he could help me with this event. I had also picked up Savannah from school, and she was doing her homework in the office. As the event was getting started I ran into my office and asked Savannah “Sis, I hope you’re ready for this! I need your help tonight. Can you help me out?” Without hesitation, she put on a catering shirt and was off and running like a veteran. Before we got finished, I posted a photo on Facebook to show how completely proud I was. My son, daughter and myself all working together for OUR family was a moment in time that I will never forget.
Mike was there as well, and like he always does, he just smiled and went with it. My kids know how important my job and 17th Street BBQ is to me. They always have my back, just like Mike Mills has always had mine.
Over the last few years Amy Mills, Mike’s daughter, and I have grown very close. They both listen to my opinions, respect my judgment and most importantly teach me the 1-7 ways. We all learn from each other, and that is important to me. These actions give me a sense of belonging that is hard to explain. Taking the time to get to know your employees, teaching them what I have learned and crossing your fingers that it sticks are just a few things that Mike and Amy
have instilled in me. Mike always says, “Be yourself, but be fair.” Be humble, be kind, learn from your mistakes, be honest, think smart doesn’t mean think quick and always be yourself. Be respectful and always watch what’s going on around you. As cooks, caterers, bbq teams, or just barbecue enthusiasts you can always use this to your advantage…only you can mold the people that represent you. Be patient with them as this will help build loyalty, and that is so important. Tell them stories when giving them examples and believe in them. Who these employees become could end up being because of your effort.
Here are a few more examples of why I consider this to be part of my family now. My dad passed in 2010. I went to tell Mike, and he showed more compassion in his eyes then average employers can give throughout their entire lifetime. He said, “Do what you have to do, but we are and will always be here for you.” I’ve made mistakes and went to tell him about them, and he said: “You will swallow a lot of frogs in your life and that might have just been the biggest.” Words of wisdom like this have made me want to work harder as time has passed.
My job is to make Mike and Amy successful and proud. Also hopefully passing on the tradition of hard work will always pay off. My kids and husband have always supported me and my job. Family is everything. Whether it’s your family at home, your work family or the family that you are trying to mold. People care!
It’s funny now that my friends take vacation time away from their jobs just to come and help us out on different catering and serving gigs we do. They have also become part of this 1-7 family and make the really long hard days become more like a hangout session.
To all my fellow bbq family, make the most of the few chances we get. Thank you, Mike, Amy, and my 1-7 family for making my family complete.