Barbecue is a tough business, especially if you’re using live-fire pits that need to be tended round the clock. It’s a rare retirement business because of that—who wants to spend their golden years pushing around pork butts in the wee hours of the morning?
But for Wardell Hooks Jr., it’s a comparatively cushy gig. Hooks, who runs the newish Off The Hook barbecue window in downtown Parkville (115 Main St., Parkville, MO), recently retired young from a management job at UPS.
“It’s very demanding,” he says in a matter-of-fact way. “As a manager, you work anywhere between eleven and fifteen hours a day.”
So compared to his old seventy-hour work weeks, smoking meat on hickory and pecan with no gas and manning a walk-up window Thursday to Saturday is a pretty cushy gig.
Hooks makes pork and brisket, which he serves on sandwiches but also employs in ways you don’t see often in these parts, such as using it to top a hot dog and stuff a baked potato. That stuffed baker with brisket is reason enough to go—splash on plenty of sauce and witness Hook’s ethos, which is an even distribution of flavor.
“I want to make sure I have plenty of flavor throughout the bite,” he says. “My goal is to make sure that when someone takes a bite, not only is it tender but it’s flavorful through every bite.”
Hooks has been cooking since he was little, with early memories of making breakfast with his mother. “When I was about fifteen or sixteen I started making barbecue,” he says. In his twenties, he started doing backyard barbecues and tailgate parties.
“My friends were like, ‘you’ve got to open a business,’” he says.
So even while working a job-and-a-half at UPS, he started a food truck. “I knew what I wanted to do when I retired from UPS,” he says. “I started the cart so that when I did decide to be retired, I’d already be established.”
That day came last June, when he left UPS at age 57 after working there for thirty-eight years. It wasn’t actually worse during the pandemic, he says; he was just ready to give up the grind and work for himself.
“UPS has always been demanding,” he says. “Great company to work for, don’t get me wrong, but it’s always been crazy.”
When the weather breaks, look for Off The Hook to expand its hours and add outdoor seating, plus live jazz, wine slushies and frozen margs, all in what Hooks calls “a real nice corner” in downtown Parkville.
“I wanted to chase my dream and I was in a position to do that,” he says. “Most people have a dream but can never chase it.”