An American Love Story: Excell Market and BBQ in Clarksville, Tennessee
Every summer as a child, my father and the other farmers in our small Clarksville, Tennessee community would take their turn as pitmaster. It was a tradition for all of us to gather, and eat whole hog BBQ straight from the pit. While not every farmer raised hogs, it was more about the celebration of togetherness that shone beyond that single late summer’s day. Days like when hopping up in Granddaddy’s truck to run up to the old country store for a sack of freshly smoked BBQ sandwiches was a treat that never got old. Long since Granddaddy’s passing, that tradition even to this day is precious to me. But, when the store changed hands in 1997 to a determined, soft-spoken Korean man by the name of James Kim, some of the locals treated him as an outsider. He and his wife, Chong, relied upon their faith and extended their hand to even those who balked at the very color of their skin. That country store is still standing stronger than ever thanks to the Kim family’s loving perseverance, making Excell Market and BBQ the best in the region.
Home of the 101st Airborne Division and amidst some of the Mid-South’s richest agrarian landscape, Clarksville is a diverse town of a little more than 150,000 people, whereas about 4,000 of that population is Asian. Korean BBQ is plentiful around here, in part due to the influx of American soldiers who married their Korean wives during the war of the 1950s, which has presented a robust Korean influence several generations strong now. As the Kims are direct descendants of rice farmers just outside of Gwangju, South Korea, theirs is an American love story from a different perspective.
It wasn’t until 1987 that a young James moved to the United States in search of higher education. He began his journey in Richmond, Virginia living where his sister married a U.S. Airforce Major and settled into their American lives.
“I wanted to go to college, but it wasn’t easy,” James explains. Enticed by the military benefits being offered to young adults, he saw the GI Bill among others his best shot at a fruitful future. Serving two years in Germany, he volunteered for the Gulf War and was sent to Ft. Campbell for air assault training prior to his 2-year tour of duty in the 8th infantry while in Kuwait and Iraq. “I never told my parents,” James remembers swearing his sister to secrecy. Should he be killed in the line of fire, the army asked that he write a letter to his parents prior to heading into battle. Begrudgingly he exclaimed, “I don’t want to write a letter. I will come back.”
As fate would have it, James did, in fact, return, and his parents never had to bear the pain of losing their son to enemy fire.
James and Chong’s love grew here in Clarksville after his tour. They started their family, and bought a small Chinese restaurant near the Army base called Wok and Roll which eventually met its demise by fire. James found himself at a loss, “It was hard to choose something, as I didn’t have skill. I spent a great deal of time looking around.” The Kims had just given birth to their firstborn when Chong prayed every morning for a door to be open for her love, “We were looking around for a new store. We stopped by here for lunch. Somehow, I left my diaper bag at Excell Market. I had to come back and had a good feeling about the place. I felt comfortable.”
The couple bought the market and started making improvements right away. But, they met resistance in the beginning according to James, “Half of the customer base was gone because a Korean man came. But, some people helped me. I researched and studied the existing cook’s techniques, and I would watch him closely. But, the next man to come along… I learned from him big time.”
That man was Walter Dyce, a pitmaster who insisted that he could help the Kims grow the business.
But make no mistake. The differences between Korean and Tennessee BBQs are as vast as the geographical distance between the two cuisines. “I kept looking at Walter’s way of cooking. He brought a lot of people in here,” James says that Dyce offered a certain passport into his new Southern community.
Yet, there was a force of nature that James would have never expected offering him an undeniable opportunity to forge his own way, with or without Dyce.
On January 22, 1999 a F3 tornado ripped through Clarksville just prior to daybreak with its 200 mph winds causing upwards of $72 million in damage. Nearly a quarter of the entire population of Clarksville would remain without electricity for weeks post-destruction. That’s when James jumped into action. He emptied his rapidly thawing freezer of hundreds of pounds of food that would have eventually spoiled, fired up the smokehouse, and fed his fallen community regardless of their tenuous relationship. “That helped me a great deal, even though it was a sad time,” James says of the tornado, which helped him build valuable relationships within the community one plate of BBQ at a time.
Upon gaining acceptance, the Kim family also bought the house situated at the rear of the market’s property where they raised their three sons mere steps from their beloved smokehouse.
Now, the couple begins their short commute to make Clarksville’s most popular BBQ starting around 5 am. Through the years, James says that older generations have pulled up chairs in the small dining room located on the back of the market to talk method and process, “That’s the key. I listen. If I want to make money, I need to make my BBQ the way they like it.”
While James refrains from making his favorite Korean BBQ, pork shoulders, ribs, and chicken quarters line the pits fired by a special blend of white oak, red oak, and hickory slabs milled by nearby Amish farmers. With very little coaxing of flavors beyond a cayenne, apple cider and white vinegar mop, along with a generous rub of salt, he tends to his investments of his business, but most importantly, of his community.
“It takes a long time. I start early in the morning and cook throughout the night,” he says that he used to do this all by himself, but luckily with two assistants, plus Chong, they are able to balance the workload more efficiently. From start to finish, each smoke lasts around 13 hours, Thursday through Sunday. The market also provides sides such as potato salad, coleslaw, and baked beans. Fresh baked pies line the cooler, as well.
It’s been nearly six years since the Kims have visited their homeland for some of their favorite delicacies, childhood friends, and remaining family members. Grateful for the Korean community in Clarksville, they opt to frequent mainstays like JibBop Grill near the campus of Austin Peay State University, and MoMo near the Ft. Campbell Army base where their story first began. “There’s a lot of good Korean food here,” he smiles.
James doesn’t plan on handing down the business to his sons, as he’s proud that they have their own visions. When asked who’s going to take over, he laughs, “I’m going to keep doing it. It’s a hard business with lots of labor.” And, while Chong may have a slightly different notion, she adds, “We work really hard. I want to slow down. But, if he’s happy, so am I.”
It’s no secret that none of us will live forever. And, while it’s way too soon to forecast what will become of Excell Market and BBQ once the Kims give up the flame, one thing is for sure. If ever there was a love language that knows no boundaries, that language would be food. As the Kims continue building this thriving business upon such principles which will surely sustain their legacy for the next generation, they invite you to stop by and grab a bite.