Jody Harnois, on Labor Day, joined a large portion of the country’s workforce to enjoy a day off from work. It was well deserved.
Harnois, owner of Heck’s Dakota Style BBQ in Vermillion, had spent the last 13 days hauling his silver food truck across southwest South Dakota and its surrounding regions to cook and serve his locally-acclaimed ribs to anyone with a plate, fork
He’s a seasoned caterer — this is his 10th year dishing classic barbecued meats (ribs, pulled pork, brisket, sausage) and sides (potato salad, sweet corn, baked beans referred to as “Clay County Whistleberries”) at events mainly within an hour radius of Vermillion. This year is different from any others in the last decade. Heck’s, usually in constant motion, decided to settle down.
Heck’s opened a physical location on the corner of Cherry Street and Cottage Avenue in late May, meaning Harnois and his six employees’ meals are no longer exclusively available on wheels. They’re open on Tuesdays and Thursdays as they ease into a balance between catering from the truck and serving at the shop.
“This has been a lot of fun,” Harnois said. “Since we’ve opened, we’ve just about doubled our catering, and I didn’t think that was gonna be possible.”
To say Heck’s new location is its first wouldn’t be true. The name, and the food, is longstanding in Vermillion’s history.
The business began at the hand of Heck Harnois — Jody’s grandfather — in 1939. The first Heck’s operated inside of what is now Brunick’s Service, a gas station on West Main Street, a few blocks east of Bunyan’s.
Heck Harnois belonged to the Norway Rib Eaters, a group of five barbecuers responsible for much of South Dakota’s barbecue lineage formed in the 1940s. The element that separated their barbecue from the rest? Corncobs — the fuel Harnois still uses to feed the flames of his grill today.
The smoke, according to Jody, engulfs meat with a sweet, rich flavor geographically identifiable to the region. It tastes like tradition.
“When we opened this thing we wanted to do it the right way,” Harnois said. “We wanted to pay respect to that history.”
That history is the driving force behind Heck’s, Harnois said, acknowledging his grandfather’s name on his black cap. Take Heck’s signature barbecue sauce, for example.
Heck was offered $10,000 for the sauce’s recipe in the 1960s, Jody said. Heck gave the recipe to Jody’s mother before he passed away, and she still mixes the sauce today.
“Grandma wouldn’t have anything to do with it,” Harnois said. “And I thought, when I graduated from the University of South Dakota with a degree in business, ‘By gosh, I’m gonna market that sauce.’”
Harnois today isn’t worried about his ability to market. His services are booked out for the next year-and-a-half. The uptick in demand is the reason his new cemented location is closed on weekends. It’s the reason Harnois doesn’t get much sleep, he said.
Despite what the sign on the front door says, Heck’s is closed this Thursday so Harnois and his staff can prepare for Ribs, Rods & Rock n’ Roll, South Dakota’s annual BBQ Championship going on its 15th year in Vermillion on Friday and Saturday.
“He’s a local vendor so a lot of people know him,” said Jenny French, President of Ribs, Rods & Rock n’ Roll, who took over the operation after Harnois left to focus solely on Heck’s. “Before, that was the only way to get his food, so he had long lines. Now, we can get it a little more often at the shack.”
Regardless of location, Harnois said he’s dedicated to preserving the Heck’s legacy whether on wheels or hardwood.
“When I first started in the barbecue business, I was nervous because of all the tradition there was in town,” he said. “I want to make sure what I was putting out there was quality. We’re very proud of where this all comes from.”