Now on wheels, Deke’s Food Truck is one of many recent evolutions of Deke’s Bar-B-Que.
By Ainsley Maloney
Photography by JPG Photography (jpgphotography.com)
When Derek Denmead joined Teach for America in 1993 upon graduating from University of Pennsylvania, he didn’t expect to receive an education that would change the course of his life. After two years of teaching 7th graders in a small Georgia town, Derek went into his year of service with a Master’s in Early American History. He left with a Ph.D. in Cooking Collard Greens.
“One of the other 7th grade teachers, Miss Brown — I can’t reveal too many secrets — but let’s just say she cleaned her collard greens in the washing machine. That’s how thoroughly you have to wash them,” Derek said with a laugh.
“Unlike most cooks in the south who added a meat component, she added vinegar and ketchup, which gave them a sweet and sour tang,” he added. “That’s how we cook our greens to this day — without the washing machine part!”
The owner of Deke’s Bar-B-Que (his grandfather’s name was Zeke, so Derek got the nickname Deke, and it stuck) always had a passion for cooking. Inspired by his grandma’s Sunday dinners, he remembers eating fresh vegetables from her garden in Newark, Ohio.
Once in Georgia, Derek found himself drawn to cooking every free moment he had, and his culinary passions reignited. He left teaching and spent the next five years cooking in restaurants in Columbus and Boston. He later moved back to Philadelphia in 1999 and entered the high-end event planning and catering business where he met his wife, Jackie. The couple married and moved to a house in Manayunk — complete with a little patio that would change everything.
“The patio had enough space for a smoker, my first little barbecue pit where I cooked brisket, ribs, pork,” he said. “My techniques evolved from there. People would tell me, ‘Boy, these ribs are good.’ It was certainly a life-long dream to have something of my own.”
One day, as the couple visited the Ugly Moose on 443 Shurs Lane, Derek noticed a vacant garage next door. A memory struck.
“It reminded me of roadside rib joints I saw in rural Georgia while driving down two-lane, back-country highways,” he recalled.
Derek pitched the idea for a barbeque-and-rib joint with open air and picnic tables, and in 2010, Derek launched Deke’s Bar-B-Que. With all-you-can-eat buffets attracting crowds, business quickly quadrupled. By 2012, Jackie, affectionately known as “Mrs. Deke,” was able to quit her job as an event and wedding planner in Atlantic City and joined the family business full time.
Just two years later, the couple bought the former Tommy Gunns location at 4901 Ridge Ave and steered all takeout and catering there, with Jackie taking over the reigns since 2014.
“She’s an invaluable part of this operation,” Derek said. “My wife and I have a combined 50 years in the hospitality industry, and we are fortunate to have Khalief Durham who is my No. 1 kitchen manager,” Derek said. “They keep the ribs rolling down there.”
Deke’s Bar-B-Que offers high quality take-out barbecue, with best sellers like ribs, pulled pork, brisket, mac and cheese, hand-cut potato wedges, and of course, Miss Brown’s collard greens. To get their signature smoked taste, the meats are slow cooked with hardwood coals.
“I use woods from PA: oak, ash, and maple, as well as fruit woods like peach, apple, and one more, which I keep secret,” Derek said. “The smoke from the wood adds flavor and helps preserve the meat.”
The cuts tend to be tougher joint cuts, like shoulders and hips, which are cooked over warm temperatures of 225 degrees “all day or overnight,” Derek said, adding, “The longer cooking time helps break down the collagens in the meat, which tenderizes and moisturizes as it gradually cooks.”
Adding to the flavor are three signature sauces made from scratch. There’s the “Straight-Up Q Sauce,” a tangy Kansas City style; the “Carolina Red,” mixed with vinegar, ketchup, and a little cayenne; and the “Triple X” sauce, a spicy concoction using hot chilis.
After seven successful years of creating inventive barbecue, the lease of their tiny garage off of Shurs Lane ended and the building was sold. What Derek saw wasn’t an ending, but an opportunity.
“Our takeout orders immediately exploded by 20 percent,” he said.
It was time to take Deke’s on the road. With his team of Jackie and niece, Caroline Bird, behind him, Derek bought a food truck and re-branded as Deke’s Food Truck, dropping the Bar-B-Que to make room for other southern comfort foods and vegan offerings.
“We always offer our brisket cheesesteak, which was ranked No. 1 on Thrillist.com’s ‘50 Things You Need to Eat in Philadelphia Before You Die,’” he said. “We also now have shrimp and grits, buttermilk battered chicken, and a vegan sloppy joe, which is really popular.”
By August 2017, Deke’s Food Truck could be spotted at The Food Trust’s Night Markets and the Manayunk StrEAT Festival, as well as in rotation at 30th Street Station and Wissahickon Brewing Company.
Catapulting Deke’s to success — in addition to its hearty, authentic southern barbecue, of course — is Derek’s ingenuity and adaptability.
When LivingSocial approached Derek back in 2012, he wasn’t interested in the same-old 50 percent discount. Instead, he proposed an event: “A Bourbon Instructional & BarbeQue-and-A” to groups of 50 people, complete with barbeque buffets and bourbon flights. His classes attracted out-of-town visitors, who’d leave with T-shirts.
“That really exploded the brand,” he said.
He also frequently joins local business owners on unique collaborations.
Derek partnered with Chris Barnes from Lucky’s Last Chance to put pulled pork on a beef patty, creating the Good Ol’ Burger, a permanent Lucky’s staple. Last February, Deke’s held a “kitchen takeover” at Lucky’s, serving a late-night Sunday brunch, complete with a brisket egg and cheese sandwich, Deke’s homemade smoked kielbasa on a burger, and chicken and waffles with Grand Marnier butter.
“You would have thought it was Friday night,” Derek recalled. “It was packed!”
This year, Derek spotted a white space in his catering business, which spikes from April to October during graduation and wedding seasons. Why not offer an option to hire Derek himself to roll a pit to the party and barbeque ribs or even a whole pig on-site?
Just one problem: he didn’t have a portable pit. Nothing if not resourceful, Derek bought a used dump-truck and convinced the owners of Philadelphia Woodworks on Umbria Street to create a “class” just for him. This allowed him to access the tools, machines, and instructors needed to turn his dump truck into Deke’s Mobile BBQ Unit, which launched this past April.
Next up, Derek is embarking on Deke’s biggest evolution yet. He recently signed a lease in Wayne Junction, and plans to replicate Deke’s Bar-B-Que garage. The space is an industrialized warehouse four times the size of the original Deke’s, complete with clear garage doors and indoor picnic tables “giving it a Route 66 feel,” Derek said. The place will look familiar to garage regulars, since he’ll be using the same decor and furniture.
“And the buffet will be back!” he exclaimed. “People miss it.”
Knowing Derek’s penchant for adapting, this Wayne Junction project is likely just the beginning of an ever-evolving chapter.
“I’m always interested in spin-off concepts,” Derek said. “The way I see it, when one door closes, another always opens. We are fortunate — we have great relationships, a loyal customer base, and a committed team.
“I guess you can say it’s a liberal-arts creative eye, meets entrepreneurial spirit, meets a network of local supporters.”
And some damn good gather-round-the-table barbecue.