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Sharing authentic Texas-style barbecue with Northeast Wisconsin

Former welder, shop teacher launched Steel Belly Barbecue in 2020

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December 13, 2023

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – Steel Belly Barbecue has been sharing its authentic, small-batch, Texas-style craft barbecue with Wisconsinites since 2020.

And in the process, Owner Russ Nockerts said it’s cultivating a southern-inspired palate for barbecue and all the associated made-from-scratch fixings throughout Northeast Wisconsin.

For Nockerts, who runs the business with his wife, Kimberly, it’s been a labor of love story.

Backyard beginnings
Getting his start by tinkering around with barbecue in the backyard, Nockerts said he quickly discovered that not many Wisconsin natives know what true, Texas-style barbecue is – as well as the merits of using offset cookers to cook the right meats, the right way, with the right seasoning.

“We dived deep into Texas-style barbecue – traditional brisket and ribs – and it morphed into a food truck,” he said. “And it just keeps growing like crazy.”

The Algoma-based business is run out of an old grocery store that serves as its commercial kitchen space complete with walk-in coolers and smokers, headquarters and parking spot for its food truck.

Steel Belly is the second career path for Nockerts, who was a welder most of his adult life and also taught a high school shop class in machining and welding.

The California native said he grew up with a vibrant food scene and food culture that involved a lot of street markets and vendors that cooked on open fires to create “some of the most incredible food you’ve ever had.”

Nockerts said he was cooking seriously for about five years, with friend after friend asking if he would make some of his delicious slow-cooked meats. 

“I had to figure out how to cook 40 racks of ribs for a wedding, and we accomplished it and set sail from there,” he said.

Taking the leap
Word of Steel Belly, Nockerts said, continued to spread by word of mouth, fueled with stints at the Roar Off the Shore Brew Fest hosted by the Dyckesville and Kewaunee Lions.

Steel Belly Barbecue donated the food and their time in exchange for sponsor advertisement, offering a small menu of carefully-culled items for the event.

Nockerts said it proved fruitful – being selected as Best Food at the event.

Steel Belly won again last year, and Nockerts said he will go for a third round in March 2024. 

“When we won the first award, everybody took notice,” he said.

That recognition, Nockerts said, led to numerous breweries and wineries reaching out to welcome Steel Belly Barbecue, as well as being invited to a variety of pop-up events.

Until he took the leap into the gig full-time, Nockerts said he was juggling upward of 16 bookings a month and his welding career.

Russ Nockerts said Steel Belly’s brisket requires a minimum 12-hour cooking process. Submitted Photo

When Nockerts’ dad passed away two years ago, he said that was the final nudge he needed to pursue his dream wholeheartedly.

“Life is short,” he said. “That really prompted me to go full-time in doing what I wanted to do.”

A lot happened in the span of one month.

In April 2021, Nockerts bought a food truck, something he said wasn’t even in his original plan but he needed a way to transport orders.

By May, he had quit his job, signed a lease on the Algoma property and began renovations. 

“It was all in God’s timing,” he said.

Carving out its niche
Two Primitive Pits barbecue smokers – which Nockerts said make all the difference in the final products – and live fire cooking tools are housed onsite in Algoma, which Nockerts said allows him to cook upward of 1,120 pounds of meat on a big weekend. 

“I fell in love with the primitive form of cooking, and cooking with fire,” he said. “The taste you get with cooking with fire is unmatched.”

The food truck transported the barbecue in the forms of ribs and brisket and made the rounds to a variety of farmers’ markets, including the Titletown Night Market on Thursdays.

This stop, Nockerts said, eventually led to Steel Belly becoming an outside food vendor in the Titletown District during Green Bay Packers games.

“I think it was the relationships we have built,” he said. “Someday, we’re hoping to squeak into Lambeau Field, but that takes a big effort and a lot of money to play at that level. But it’s on the vision board as a goal.”

Nockerts said each batch of Steel Belly meat starts with certified Angus beef cooked to perfection using 100% oak.

Steel Belly Barbecue, he said, is the only Northeast Wisconsin wood-fired, wood-smoked craft barbecue available.

And the business, Nockerts said, further differentiates itself by cooking in small batches fresh daily, which includes the scratch-made sides – including macaroni and cheese, loaded potato salad, BBQ baked beans and slaw.

Steel Belly cooks all its meats on Primitive Pits Offset smokers, which Owner Russ Nockerts said makes all the difference in the final products. Submitted Photo

Though the work is time-intensive, with Nockerts cooking 12-14 hours a day – he said he’s obsessed with cooking by fire to create a “wow” experience.

“We want to create that for everyone who eats our food,” he said. “We want them to say, ‘wow, what did you do to this?’”

Nockerts said the recipes are the result of trial and error and finessing along the way – seasoning Steel Belly Barbecue’s meats with salt and pepper.

“It’s simply seasoned,” he said.

That, Nockerts said, is complemented by an all-purpose seasoning on the ribs and a sweet heat rub on burnt ends.

The brisket, he said, requires a minimum 12-hour cooking process, and that’s not a “set-it-and-forget-it” setup.

Instead, Nockerts said he monitors the fire at a minimum of every half hour to make sure the fire and resulting temperatures stay exactly where he wants them to be.

The same, he said, goes for the pulled pork.

The barbecue is cooked onsite in the Steel Belly Barbecue kitchens unless, Nockerts said, an event asks him to bring a live fire table onsite as a custom experience.

But, in most cases, he said, the meal is prepared in the kitchen and transported to the event where it’s served hot and fresh – though Nockerts said he insists on carving brisket in front of the diner.

“I always carve brisket in front of the customer so they ultimately receive the freshest cut of meat,” he said. “It’s the only way to serve it.”

Though brisket has its loyal following, Nockerts said it’s not the only attraction.

“Everybody comes for our brisket, and it is the king of the meat,” he said. “But there is a huge pulled pork population in our region. Traditional Texas barbecue is brisket, ribs and sausage. We have the ribs and the brisket locked in, but people up here are used to eating a brat as their sausage. They don’t understand that it takes three days to make our sausage. It’s made from our trimmings so there is zero waste.”

A culinary experience
Nockerts said Steel Belly “lets the meat shine with Primitive Pits barbecue smokers.”

“Everybody has had barbecue in some way, shape or form, but they need to try our five-star barbecue,” he said.

All Steel Belly fixings – including macaroni and cheese, loaded potato salad, BBQ baked beans and slaw – are made from scratch by Russ Nockerts and his team on a daily basis. Submitted Photo

It isn’t easy, nor is it cheap, Nockerts said, with protein costs continuing to rise – something he said he monitors daily. 

He hasn’t had to raise prices in a year and a half but said he has to pay close attention to it because there isn’t as much of a margin as there typically is with fried foods.

For Nockerts, he said it’s all about the quality and creating a memorable culinary experience.

“We literally get people who say, ‘Holy (moly)’ almost daily,” he said. “We get compared not only to the best barbecue but the best food. I always say thank you because that’s what we’re here to do.”

Though the truck has been a solid vehicle for delivering great barbecue to the masses, Nockerts said he also enjoys the events where he’s at eye level with people so he can take in their reaction.

“On Thursday nights at Titletown, I set up a tent so I’m on ground level and cutting meat in front of people,” he said. “I get to see when they take a bite and have that ‘wow’ facial reaction.”

While the warmer months (May through October) are the busiest and include a series of farmers’ market circuits, breweries, wineries and festivals, Nockerts said winter tends to shift to holiday parties, corporate catering, weddings, Packers game festivities, etc.

Nockerts said he is making a concerted effort this year to focus on securing more catering.

The business, he said, is on the list of preferred caterers for The Automobile Gallery, as well as some wedding planning sites that drive business.

In one weekend, Nockerts said he catered two Christmas parties, a wedding and a Packers game.

Russ Nockerts said traditional Texas barbecue is brisket, ribs and sausage – accompanied by equally flavorful sides. Submitted Photo

“We are focused on growing the catering side of the business, and that’s been solely by word of mouth,” he said. “We have done this with zero paid advertisement, and it just keeps growing because we’re creating experiences nobody else is providing.”

In total, Steel Belly Barbecue catered 36 to 40 events in addition to participating in about 130-140 festivals, farmers’ markets, winery events, etc. in 2023.

The business, Nockerts said, will have a little breather in January before resuming a new dinner series at Von Stiehl Winery in Algoma. 

The business’s continued steady growth, Nockerts said, led to his wife joining the team full-time about a year into it – and has since prompted the hiring of another full-time and three part-time employees.

Nockerts said he’s hoping to expand the team and may invest in a second truck in 2024 so he can designate one for catering work and one for events.

He said his ultimate goal is to open a true Texas-style restaurant with counter service to provide the experience he said is lacking in this area.

Though the overhead for a brick-and-mortar restaurant is intimidating, Nockerts said he intends to build up to that.

“We’re changing the culture one plate at a time,” he said. “We just keep cooking the best we can every single day to build the following we need to support a full-time (brick-and-mortar) experience.”

For more information on Steel Belly Barbecue, visit steelbellybbq.com.

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