A red sign with the letters “Bar-B-Q” sits atop a crooked metal post on Alabama 21 near Jacksonville and during the lunch hour Thursday the parking lot it marks was crowded by about a dozen cars.
A few yards away is a restaurant with an old facade, its interior marked by dark paneled walls on which are hung framed old country scenes. The tables are wooden and the counter is faux wood. Most days Patsy Marbut can be found standing behind it, welcoming customers while her husband, Gary, works to turn Boston butts into barbecue at the family business.
“We’re hands-on,” said Patsy Marbut. “For us to be present, I think people feel more comfortable when they see us here.”
The Rocket opened in the 1950s as The Rocket Drive Inn. It bought about five years later by Gary’s parents, Cecil Marbut Sr., who died in the late 1960s, and Eunice Marbut, who worked in the restaurant well past retirement age. Gary Marbut, 62, began working there as a junior in high school and now owns it with his wife.
“My mother told me I needed to earn some money instead of taking money from her,” Marbut said, taking a break, a navy blue apron draped around his neck.
Orders in the restaurant are handwritten, the business hasn’t yet begun taking debit or credit cards and it still slow cooks its meat in a 12-hour rotation. A barbecue pit out back is made from stacked stone and features two simple openings, one to stack split wood inside, the other for lining up Boston butts. Marbut said traditional barbecue pits are disappearing and few like the one at his restaurant remain.
“It’s the pit, it’s not about me,” Marbut said.
Brad Thomas, from Lanett, was in town Thursday with friends to watch Robert Waldrop graduate from the police academy in Jacksonville. The five of them stopped in at The Rocket to have lunch after the ceremony.
Thomas said he tries to find small, independent restaurants like The Rocket and he was making his second visit there.
“It’s kind of like your hole in the wall barbecue place that every town has,” Waldrop said.
A few tables away a young couple shared a seat waiting for a to-go order. A couple of tables over from the couple were two men who sported Auburn shirts, baseball caps and pony tails and just behind Waldrop’s group sat Brandi Davis and her friend Erika Hawkins, both of whom said they’ve visited the restaurant since they were children.
They talked over a barbecue salad and emptied paper food baskets, but agreed the burgers are their all-time favorite menu item.
“You get full after you eat half a sandwich, but they’re good,” Davis said.
The restaurant employs a total of 15 and on this day a couple of them were busy reading orders on tiny blue notes and shuffling down the narrow galley kitchen to the grill.
Marbut is one of five siblings, all of whom worked at the restaurant at some point, he said. His sister, Jane Bayda, operates Captain Dave’s in Florida, and his brother, Cecil, recently passed his own restaurant on to his son, Tyler.
Gary Marbut said he’s not sure how much longer he can keep working seven-day weeks at the restaurant, but he feels sure it won’t disappear from the outskirts of Jacksonville anytime soon.
His son, Justin, plans to keep the family tradition going and will eventually take over at The Rocket, he said.