Bonanza in Dexter
Hotel Hickman's Chuck Wagon BBQ
by Sally Mitani
"I get up at 2 a.m. to load the ribs into the smoker so they'll be ready for lunch. There's no cheatin' if you want 'em done right. I've heard some people put ribs in the oven with a little liquid smoke--well, we don't even know what that stuff is," says Scott Thomas, owner of Hotel Hickman's Chuck Wagon BBQ, which has recently put a roof over its head in downtown Dexter.
Thomas and his three coworkers ("Aw, just call 'em Danny, Mike, and Ed") pitched their business plan to the village council, which had almost given up hope that anyone could make the former sheriff's substation a viable restaurant. The council was considering turning the tiny gabled cottage into public restrooms, but gave Thomas a two-year lease.
Thomas's 1889 chuck wagon--which takes its name from his place on Hickman Rd. in Ann Arbor--is the original food truck. For years, Thomas and his crew have been setting up near the Dexter Cider Mill in the fall and selling ribs to people looking for something more substantial than doughnuts. They also travel around southeastern Michigan with a more theatrical version of their cowboy cooking road show, catering weddings, graduations, and other events.
The men have been play-acting the cowboy life in their spare time for so long that theater and real life seem to fuse when they approach their cast iron cook pots. Thomas has a folksy cowboy-sounding answer for everything, from how he got started (a historical reenactment out at Domino Farms: "We were cookin' our lunch in a Dutch oven hangin' on a tripod over a fire, and things just took off from there") to how their wives figure into all this ("We think chuck wagon cookin' is not for women, children, or dogs").
All the guys have other jobs that pay the bills--"day jobs" would be a poor choice of words for Thomas's, because he's a truck driver for a produce distributor and usually crams three trips to
Kentucky every week. Because of that, and because it's winter, they're open only three days a week at the moment, but those are long days: they serve all three meals, starting with a large breakfast for $5--eggs, homemade sausage, cornbread, potatoes, and coffee that's "not done until a spoon stands up in it."
Ribs and brisket in various forms are of course on the menu for lunch and dinner, although at the moment Thomas is pushing the homemade jalapeno sausage: "We gotta figure out some way to pay for the $600 machine we just bought. And can you mention that in the spring we're going to teach sausage-making classes?"
As soon as the weather warms, they hope to expand their hours and add outside seating. Until then, takeout is your best bet. Thomas, gesturing around the small service area furnished with a bench and a few chairs, claims the restaurant seats four. Where's the table?
"I said it seats four," he retorts. "There's the four seats. Where you put your plate is up to you."
Hotel Hickman's Chuck Wagon BBQ, 8050 Main, Chelsea, 646-6261. Winter hours Fri.-Sun. 6 a.m.-7 p.m. hotelhickman.com
Anchored by the Country Market, Dexter Crossing is the older of the two strip malls on Dexter's eastern border, and it's hard not to notice the number of vacancies. But lately a few new lights have come on there.
In January, Melissa Duncan moved her Jewelry Box Boutique to Dexter Crossing-a relatively low-risk way to see if it can fly on its own.
For years, Duncan and her mother, Connie Bade, have been making jewelry and selling it at area craft fairs. Last year, Duncan opened the Jewelry Box inside the business she started ten years ago-the eco-friendly Cleaning Goddesses, head- quartered in a house downtown next to Terry B's. In August, she says, her Cleaning Goddesses lease is up, and if the Jewelry Box isn't paying its own rent by then, she'll move the Cleaning Goddesses into the Dexter Crossing spot. If it is, "then I'll decide what I want to do. I get a little tired of all the snow shoveling and all the other stuff we have to do [at the house]. I might just rent another storefront at Dexter Crossing. At any rate, I'll have some options."
When we talked, she hadn't quite finished stocking the Jewelry Box. Supplementing the necklaces and beaded scarves made by Duncan and Bade are a kaleidoscope of inexpensive, glittery bling. The very, very top of the line is a $200 necklace, but there's plenty for under $20.
Jewelry Box Boutique, 7045 Dexter- Ann Arbor Rd., no phone. Tues., Thurs., & Fri. 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Wed. 1-7 p.m., Sat. 1-5 p.m. Closed Sun. & Mon.
Jet's Pizza, formerly tucked into a very small strip of businesses visible only from Dan Hoey Rd., also has moved to Dexter Crossing. Shift manager Kelsey Seltenright applauds the move. "We get a lot more traffic, and you can't tell from up here at the counter, but the kitchen is twice the size." The franchise is owned by Jeff VanObermeer, who also owns the Jet's in Saline.
Jet's Pizza, 7011 Dexter-Ann Arbor Rd., Dexter, 424-9810. Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. noon-10 p.m. jetspizza.com
[Originally published in May, 2013.]