We will begin by talking about barbecue, but really the story is about how Benjamin Grice is working to bring his childhood home, Paxton back to life.
But first, the barbecue.
With 20 years of culinary experience under his belt, Grice moved back to his hometown of Paxton with his wife after they had their first child in Boston. Working at the University of Illinois, Grice found himself counting the traffic through a bleak downtown Paxton night after night, trying to figure out if the town could support a restaurant.
Once Grice got a few years of the Paxton Swine and Dine, an annual barbecue competition under his belt, he decided he was all in.
“So I left my job at the University as a chef and jumped right in,” Grice said.
What looks like an unassuming brick building, The Humble Hog, located at 125 S Market St., offers a variety of smoked meats with sauces that meld together.
“Thinking through this entire concept, I wanted (the Humble Hog) to be comfortable, very approachable, and I want it to last, so I also want it to be different,” Grice said. “I wanted something you can’t get anywhere else. So I use all local meats. We also make all of our rubs and sauces.”
Grice said that the sauce is key because when cooking a fatty meat, such as beef or pork, a sauce to compliment the meat is what makes the dish come to life.
“Our sauce is very tannic: it’s sweet and approachable, but it does the job,” he said. “You can taste every bite of the meat because of the way we designed the sauce. It’s not like anything you buy on the shelf.”
“Sauce shouldn’t be designed to eat all by itself. You should pair it with the meat. The two enhance each other.”
The Humble Hog menu includes brisket, pork, homemade sausage, turkey, ham, burnt ends, rib tips, baby back ribs and will include spare ribs soon. Grice said patrons also enjoy the pit beans that have chunks of brisket and pork in them, pork cracklins that are hit with their rib rub once they come out of the frier and the chipotle mac and cheese.
And a little extra magic happens in Paxton on Wednesday night when The Humble Hog is flooded for wing night.
But with barbecue restaurants with similar items on their menu, one might ask, what sets the Humble Hog apart?
For Grice, it comes back to staying local.
“I’ve shaken hand with all of our farmers,” he said. “I’ve been to every single processing plant we use. Everything is as local as we can get it.”
Without an advertising plan, Grice said the growth of The Humble Hog has been all word-of-mouth.
“When we opened, opening day, three hours before there was already a line outside,” he said. “And now it’s become a tourist draw. We get people who drive down from Chicago, from Indiana. It’s kind of crazy. I didn’t really plan for that part of it, I just wanted to help out my hometown and put a little life in downtown.”
Grice said in the 20 years he’s been working as a chef, he has never been part of a restaurant that goes through so many take-home containers.
“In the beginning, we were making decisions on how much food we were going to give,” Grice said. “And I was the guy in the back saying, ‘Just give them a little bit more.’ And we put a lot of food on that plate.”
“People are happy with a full belly and I am okay if they have a little left over for the next day during lunch,” he continued.
But from the very beginning of opening The Humble Hog, Grice envisioned more for his community.
“I grew up here,” he said. “It’s definitely a part of me. I look at what my grandparents experienced when they moved to Paxton; Paxton was a different Paxton. Just like Champaign was a different Champaign and Mahomet was a different Mahomet back then.”
“Paxton was kind of the spot back then,” Grice continued. “We were the county seat (and still are) but it had so much commerce. Even when I was a kid, there were men’s stores where you could have a suit tailor made, women’s stores, shoe stores; there was stuff. So I kind of want that place where you can come in and eat, but you also feel like you are a part of something bigger.”
So for Grice bringing in local meats and ingredients has been equally as important as preserving downtown buildings and local furniture.
“When I opened (The Humble Hog) people asked where all of our antique chairs came from. Well, they came from the local antique shops. We wanted to tie it all in. What can we do to promote the town, not just us? So we bought all of the wood locally. I made all of the tables myself. The pews are from an old Paxton Church. The cabinet is made from three barn doors from a local farmer.”
To offer the Paxton community another option, Grice also opened Market Street Events in the building next to The Humble Hog. And this week he will open the doors of Harvest Ale House where he will serve 12 local beers on tap chilled to 30-degrees.
“If we are going to say over there (Humble Hog) we support local, then I thought, why would I do anything different over here?” he said. “I’m not just trying to help Paxton; I’m also trying to help other towns.”
With the Harvest Ale House, Grice hopes to give Paxton residents and visitors a reason to sit down and celebrate.
“Paxton doesn’t have a place to celebrate if it’s your anniversary. Where are you going to go? The Humble Hog? That’s cool but I wanted a place where you can sit down and get a nice steak or salmon.”
With an original 1920’s Art Deco bar, Grice uncovered an original stained glass window between the restaurant and the kitchen, kept the original flooring behind the bar and used a local print shop to blow up old negatives found at the local fire station within the Harvest Ale House.
“When I was building this out, I wanted to do every little thing I could to give a nod to Paxton’s peak,” he said. “It shows that we can do it again. You don’t have to just let a downtown die just because you have stuff out by the interstate.”
“I wanted to have a flagship for the town,” he continued. “Something that can build a little pride in the community. This could affect the whole economy for this whole town. Will this bring a welding company here? Maybe not. But if someone has lunch with the mayor here, maybe it will.”
With a combination of quality food, friendly service, and sustainable antique shops, Paxton is already beginning to see a turn of the tide. A local popcorn shop is renovating a space a few doors down from The Humble Hog, an art gallery is said to be setting up shop and additional antique shops are ready to call Paxton home.
“People used to stop and get off the interstate and say (Monicals and Hardee’s) is all Paxton has,” Grice said. “But now they are seeing that Paxton has other stuff to offer. People from Naperville are coming down are coming down and flooding our streets. They go in and out of every antique shop to take items back to their lakehouse, spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars. They eat, they shop, they gas up. It’s all sales tax revenue.”
And through these opportunities of creating tax dollars for his hometown, Grice hopes that the residents of Paxton also have an experience unlike anywhere else.
By creating environments where he “would want to hang out,” Grice is excited about providing quality jobs for the residents of Paxton while also respecting their time and priorities. Because of this, The Humble Hog is closed on Sunday and Monday.
He and his wife moved back to Paxton for the small schools, and the “quaint and quiet community.” Grice is also excited about producing jobs for the Paxton residents.
“I took a lot of heat for that, but we are a family company,” he said. “Since day one I’ve told my employees that I’ll be the only restaurant with a two day weekend for them. It makes it better for the schedule and their family life, and mine too.”
Because family is why Grice decided to move back to Paxton. It was the good schools for his children, the potential for growth and the “quaint and quiet community” that drew him back home again.