MIDVALE, Utah (ABC4) – Long before Texas-inspired BBQ joints and personal pellet smokers were commonplace, Joe Morley had perfected the barbecue game.
A native of Midvale, he did so without an upbringing in the heart of brisket and rib country or any of the fancy equipment which can now be easily purchased at any number of retail stores.
With a bit of practice and a homemade smoker made from an old gun safe, Morley built a BBQ empire that has stood for nearly four decades as a Utah favorite.
“It’s a memory piece now, we haven’t used it for probably 30 years,” Joe’s son, Brent, laughs when asked about the safe-turned-smoker. “I remember the first couple of test runs in my backyard and then when we ended up moving into the restaurant, that was our smoker for the first little while.”
Anchored by DIY supplies and set in a strip mall in Midvale, Joe Morley’s BBQ was a long shot to make it at all. The younger Morley explains that most restaurants fail within a few years and his dad’s restaurant’s storefront, set off the beaten trail on the west side of the Salt Lake metro area was in his words, “a horrible location.” In addition, since the menu was also quite different for the local palate, Joe had to make several adjustments and modifications to the cooking process and sauce to appeal to a crowd that had likely never had smoked BBQ before. This was long before national chain and other local barbecue joints had become mainstream, according to Brent.
Despite the odds, Joe Morley’s BBQ became one of the state’s most well-known and well-loved locally-owned restaurants. However, after 37 years of operation, the legendary BBQ joint will be closing its doors this weekend.
After years of serving its signature meats, smoked over cherry wood, complete with the can’t-miss side, baked beans, at the restaurant and at countless catering events, the family is hanging up the aprons, for now at least. The old building has been sold to a developer, which is fine with the family, who is tired and overworked due to the grind of the pandemic, not unlike other restaurants in the state. Not to mention, Joe, the patriarch, is ready for retirement at age 70.
“It’s really hard to just think this is all coming to an end, but here we are,” Brent says.
Although Joe Morley’s BBQ has brought folks from all over the state for a taste of authentic Texas barbecue – which is ironic because the Morleys are not from Texas, Joe got the idea after a friend from there introduced him to the cuisine – what has brought them back has been the relationships formed over the food.
One of the restaurant’s most loyal customers was the late Larry H. Miller, the auto dealership mogul and longtime owner of the Utah Jazz. After trying Morley’s BBQ for the first time around 30 years ago, he would regularly book lunches and caterings for his car salesmen and employees of his other businesses. Miller, who passed away in 2009, and his wife, Gail, were known to stop by the restaurant a couple of times a month.
“It was always fun to see him on TV and then see him in person and kind of get more of a personal feeling for them as actual people,” Morley says of Miller.
Throughout the years, many companies have found Morley’s BBQ to be a hit at large events or parties. The restaurant provided food at the ground-breaking or completion ceremonies for landmarks such as the LDS Conference Center, the Utah Museum of Natural History, Eccles Theater, and most recently, the new Salt Lake City International Airport, for a crew of over 2,100. According to his dad’s estimates, Morley says the little restaurant in Midvale has likely cranked out over 6 million meals since its opening in 1985.
Joe has become a mini-celebrity of sorts, for both his food and his ability to create a great first impression with his customers turned friends.
“Dad just loves people,” Brent Morley says of his father. “People tell me all the time of some interaction they’ve had with my dad or how much they’ve appreciated us being there for the wedding or the grand opening of their business or their anniversary party and it’s fun to watch him make those connections. And I’ve benefited from that myself, in terms of making friendships and building relationships.”
Although the restaurant will be serving its last plate of chopped pork, baked beans, and a mud pie for dessert on Saturday, the door isn’t completely shut on a comeback sometime in the future. After giving his dad a much-needed break into retirement, Brent Morley explains that a scaled-down version of the restaurant, perhaps only as a catering service, could resurface in the future.
For now, the Morleys are stepping away from the smoke and sauce but do so knowing their product was as good as any barbecue in the country.
“We get a lot of people to say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been to Texas and Kansas City and now this is right up there,'” Morley boasts. “That’s when you know you’ve succeeded.”