You see the smoke first.
White, billowing and carrying the smells of pork and chicken, it drifts downwind across 17th Street and into the parking lots of nearby apartment complexes. If the wind’s blowing in from the south, the smoke and smells travel up North Dunn Street and past the stadium.
Either way, follow the smoke, and the trail ends at Will T’s BBQ, a small wooden stand occupying a corner of the Convenient Food Mart parking lot on Dunn Street. It’s here that owner and head cook Will Thomas dishes out his barbecue-slathered sandwiches, chicken and ribs.
“Been around for a while,” Thomas said. “But the last two years I started to make a name for myself with the students.”
Thomas has worked for IU for decades. He said he always planned to “barbecue a little bit” after he retires. But a few years ago, when the food mart’s former owner asked if Thomas wanted to open up a stand in the store’s parking lot, he decided to jump-start his retirement plan.
Currently, he works in the University’s cyclotron operations department, but when football season and Little 500 arrive, his focus turns to barbecue. You can find Thomas at his stand every home game day and all Little 500 weekend, though he can’t always predict when he’ll get the urge to barbecue.
“Sometimes I just show up,” Thomas said.
No matter the time of year, the most popular items on the menu are the ribs and the pulled pork sandwich.
For his barbecue sauce, Thomas said he uses the brand Open Pit as a base and then adds his own “secret stuff.” The result is a sweet-and-tangy, rose-colored sauce that Thomas pours liberally on the meat after it’s been cooked.
The hours vary as Thomas only prepares so many slabs of meat a day. When all of the meat is cooked, it’s time to close shop. Loyal customers know to stop by and pre-order a favorite menu item, but there’s usually enough meat to feed a game-day afternoon’s rush.
When he needs more barbecue sauce, Thomas simply runs next door. His friend owns the small home that sits just feet away from the parking lot.
“I got lucky getting this spot,” he said.
Will T’s BBQ doesn’t advertise much, and the business doesn’t have a website. But Thomas said the store has its own free publicity campaign.
“I like grilling for the kids on campus,” Thomas said. “They’re what keeps me going. They brag about my barbecue so I don’t have to.”
Originally published in IDS WEEKEND, as part of its feature on the “dream food cart.”