Northern Arizona’s Mountain Living Magazine, August 8, 2021
Story and Photos by Gail G. Collins
Some of the best ideas are born of necessity.
Matt and Kim Agee were hungry one day, and with only one eatery serving the small community of Munds Park, they did something Matt swore he would never do—open a restaurant.
It was Kim’s suggestion, and it gained traction. After 20 years raising children, the workload didn’t frighten her, and the timing was right.
“Once we decided to do it,” said Matt Agee, “it came together quickly before we could talk ourselves out of it.”
They opened Agee’s Barbecue Market in August 2017 in a 900-square-foot building, where Munds’ only coffee shop now operates. Family and some neighbors pitched in, and the community embraced the barbecue joint. Agee’s outgrew the space in short order, moving to the current building nearby, tucked behind a gas station. That fall, the family’s youngest son, Mitch, entered kindergarten, and the couple’s days were filled with meat and smoke.
The new space gave the business room to develop, expanding the bar and patio areas. There was also plenty of room to house the enormous smoker or “22 feet of oak-smokin’ love,” as general manager Kass Kral calls it. The handyman met Agee at a poker game and became a regular. They quickly employed him to even out the competition on Trivia Night, which Kral had won every week, joked Agee. Kral proved a quick study and, “they adopted me,” he said, tearing up. “We’re all a barbecue family now.”
Apparently, barbecue sauce is thicker than blood.
That family attitude has carried the business forward to include their adult daughters. Madison works as assistant manager while MacKenzie handles the front line and more. Even volunteers participate for the joy of it, saying things like, “I always wanted to work at a barbecue place.” One retiree also contributed to the Carolina gold sauce recipe. Depending on the season or event, all hands are on deck with supportive friends, who have obtained food handler cards.
The idea for barbecue came about when Agee was a youngster. His father built post offices, and one summer, he worked in Dale. The central Texas location was renowned for it dry, slow-smoked meat. Think Black’s Barbecue of Lockhart founded in 1932, the oldest family-run place. (Full confession: When our daughter married in 2013, my husband drove from the Austin wedding site to pick up Black’s catering for the reception. Driving back without sampling any was the hardest part.) Phoenix area’s Little Miss Barbecue, who is in the top 10 according to Kral, also provided huge influence and equipment. Little Miss builds smokers and distributes them nationally.
Agee’s, pronounced like the letters A and G, smokes central Texas-styled beef brisket and ribs, seasoning it with simple salt and pepper. The secret is in the smoke, the choice Black Angus meat and the lengthy process, which keeps the smoker in operation nearly around the clock. The brisket is Agee’s baby, and he maintains a constant temperature manually. The pulled pork and pork belly are slathered with scratch sauce, while turkey and handcrafted sausage round out the meats sold by the pound.
In typical barbecue fashion, guests line up, order, pay and take their heaving trays to tables to indulge in the messy meal. Sandwiches and plates are available with six sides, which are both classic—like coleslaw—and creative, such as potato macaroni salad. Beans are enhanced with brisket or pork trimmings, cheesy potatoes, smoked macaroni and cheese and elote complete the choices. The Mexican corn is crafted with chipotle, cotija and spices. Nothing artificial is added, and demand is great, so the groceries turn over briskly in a week.
“We serve a big, lunchtime crowd,” said Kral, “because the smoker starts chumming the waters.”
Great demand means destination barbecue spots sell out fast. Agee’s is open Thursday through Sunday only, and it’s important to get in before 2 p.m. The line can be long, but patience is tastily rewarded.
Agee’s sells 600 pounds of meat a day and serves 2,000 finger-lickin’ customers each weekend. The local population has learned to pre-order and pre-pay to assure their favorite choices are ready to take home, but seasonal tourism is harder to manage. Munds Park bumper stickers joke: Population varies. In fact, it rises exponentially from a base of 1,200 in winter to 15,000 in summer, including the woods.
“Campers come covered in mud on their ATVs and bring food back to their tents,” said Agee.
Still, the official seal of approval comes from the uniforms stopping in. Workers from fire, police and transportation departments plus utility companies are regulars at Agee’s. Truckers, too, have mapped it out as during the early months of the pandemic, Agee’s provided free food to transit workers to support the national effort.
“We got on their network then, and they’ll drive 30 minutes from their route to take us in and stay overnight in the parking lot,” he added.
To keep the doors open when the barbecue is spent, Agee’s added a wood-fired pizza oven, blazing out 124 pizzas in a record shift. All fresh ingredients build a popular product, like BBQ with pulled pork or traditional Margherita with fresh basil.
Nothing is wasted at Agee’s. Smash burgers utilize brisket trims for big flavor. From the bar menu, the plump wings require a separate smoker and are served with a choice of several house made dips, like Nashville hot sauce. The posole broth is bolstered with run-off from pork butts. These delicious additions are available on particular days, so check the website or call ahead. If the line is busy, hang in there, and they will answer, either to take your order or accept a compliment. One recent customer waited good-naturedly simply to commend them on the ribs.
The bar, with handmade tops of black walnut and juniper, offers local love brews, like Firetruck Brewing Company, Mother Road, Four Peaks and Shiner Bock for a taste of Texas. If you can find room, there are sweets, like vanilla wafer banana pudding and ice cream.
Although COVID caused the industry to struggle, loyalty has kept it moving forward. In the midst, retirees bought large gift cards for emergency and essential workers to help balance business efforts. Post-pandemic, Agee’s staff returned quickly and grew. Costs have risen drastically with supplies chains broken. A case of gloves increased from $45 to $210, and while the quality and quantity of meat orders has become less reliable, Agee’s remains consistent in its standards.
In 2020, the usual summer fundraising events in support of Pinewood Fire Department collapsed into one grand effort. Agee’s, with its expanded space, agreed to host the event. Perhaps, it was the lack of engagement during the pandemic or the noticeable need of a small community, but the revenue raised outpaced the goal six times over for a total of $30,000.
That success laid the groundwork for an annual singular event. This year, the goal is set at $50,000. Over Labor Day Weekend, the festivities will include six bands, chain saw carvings on site, a raffle with 150 prizes including vacation packages and more. The 50/50 raffle currently sits at $31,000 and will be split between the winner and the fire department. The overall aim is to build a new fire station in Munds Park. Come out to support the community and enjoy some old-fashioned fun.
The Agees are a longtime, local family, who employ and feed neighbors and friends. Agee confirmed, “Munds Park will always be home.” NAMLM
Pinewood Fire Department Fundraiser
Where: Munds Park at Agee’s Barbecue Market
When: Labor Day Weekend, Friday & Saturday September 3 & 4
Live music from six bands, 50/50 Raffle with 150 prizes, chainsaw carvings on site and more.
Goal: $50,000 to build a new fire house.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org for more information with Venmo donations to @ageesbbq