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For Kenny Ware and Michael Toney, great barbecue eats and youthful spirit are universal qualities they can infuse anywhere, from community service to slinging slices of pizza.
The lifelong friends have opened their second restaurant, Backyard Slices, two doors down from their Backyard Barbeque, in the same shopping strip on Freeport’s Nautical Mile.
The new venture comes two years after the two took over Backyard Barbeque, which Ware’s father opened in 2018.
“We decided to go with pizza because honestly, we’re having fun,” Ware said of himself and Toney. That’s what food is about. It’s a spinoff of everything we do in [Backyard Barbeque] on a slice.”
Beyond the ordinary cheese or the turkey pepperoni slices, the partners whipped up barbecue fusion creations, including a brisket pie topped with ricotta cheese and some zest, courtesy of pickled red onions. There is also the shrimp taco slice, livened with pico de gallo, mozzarella cheese and the Backyard sauce uses on burgers at Backyard Barbeque.
“This gives it more of a millennial kind of feel,” Ware said of the unique eats. “People think once you get pizza, it’s just classic Italian. We switched it up a bit and threw our own feel and flavor into it.”
The restaurant also found a hit with its lemon pepper garlic knots, a similar recipe to Backyard Barbeque’s most popular wing flavor: lemon pepper honey. Backyard Slices also offers garlic parmigiana and Buffalo wings, but they are not simply a repeat of the fan favorite next door.
“Instead of frying them, we bake them,” Ware said. “They get this nice crispy outside and soft inside.”
The pizzeria also bottles and sells its own iced teas and lemonades, the recipes for which come courtesy of Toney’s experimentation. He also crafts the cocktails at Backyard Barbeque.
Although the pizzeria’s space is limited, the duo splashed their own feel and flavor into the décor. The restaurant boasts a mural bursting with portraits and quotes from famous Black musicians the owners grew up listening to, from Jay-Z and DMX to Lauryn Hill and Beyoncé.
The mural’s theme complements s a wall inside Backyard Barbeque, which boasts portraits of the Black jazz and blues musicians Ware’s father admires, such as Billy Holiday, Nina Simone, B.B. King and Ray Charles.
“I have memories of my dad lighting the smoker up at 5 o’clock in the morning playing blues music, smelling the smoke and going outside and helping him with it,” Ware said. “I have memories of my grandfather going out on boats on the Nautical Mile and catching fish and sitting in his backyard porch and fileting and skinning the fish and frying it and throwing it on the grill.”
The sensations and comforts surrounding Ware’s backyard memories are the same feelings he hopes to stir inside his customers when they enjoy his barbecue delights from either spot.
“I want people to feel like their in their backyard on their lawn chair, having a nice ice cold beverage, whether that be homemade Kool-Aid, lemonade or iced tea or one of our craft cocktails,” Ware said. “I want people to feel at home. I want people to want to come back again.”
Taking over and giving back
Like many in the restaurant industry, the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on Ware’s career. After graduating from Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, he honed his craft at restaurants in England, Savannah, Georgia and New York City. With restaurants shuttered, he found himself out of work.
At the same time, his father was looking to sell his two-year-old Backyard Barbeque. With nothing left to lose, Ware believed he could fuse his high-end cooking expertise with barbecue comfort food to forge a successful entrepreneurial path post pandemic.
“It’s all the same techniques, cooking is cooking,” Ware said. “I think with all the techniques I used in fine dining, I just made elevated comfort food. We make all our pickles from scratch, our sauces from scratch, our burgers we ground them fresh in-house.”
Since taking over the business, Ware and Toney also implemented taco Tuesdays and Sunday brunches to boost what Ware calls the “millennial feel.”
The duo are always looking ahead to what comes next. As the holiday season draws now, they will start taking orders for lemon pepper fried turkeys and collecting donations for their second annual children’s toy drive, the latter of which is but one example of the partners dedication to community service.
“We sponsored Rising Stars Football Team for a season — all the kids got to play for free,” Ware said. “Coming from a low-income neighborhood, we like to provide jobs and opportunities for everyone. I’m also in a fraternity called Omega Psi Phi (that does) a lot of community work, as well.”
Further down the line, Ware and Toney will consider plans to grow their Backyard brand beyond, well, their backyard.
“We’re always looking to expand to wherever there’s opportunity,” Ware said. “I think our goal is to have Backyard Barbeque as a household name.”