Derry Hammond is no novice when it comes to taking leaps of faith, but his latest may be his biggest.
The owner of the hugely-successful Sweet Magnolia Smokehouse food truck for the past six years, Hammond is bucking retail trends and opening his own brick and mortar restaurant in Ahwatukee.
The grand opening of his first stay-put restaurant at 4929 E. Chandler Blvd. is Saturday, July 27 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
His soft-opening was earlier this month, and already there have been rave reviews.
It was a hardly a spur-of-the-moment decision.
Hammond knew he and his crew could continue serving up barbecue baby back ribs, brisket, chicken and pulled pork from their popular food truck — which covers metro Phoenix at various festivals and makes regular weekly stops at businesses and office complexes.
But the former minor league baseball outfielder — who was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers straight out of high school — said he felt it was time he left the minors after playing for Brewers, Dodgers, White Sox, Blue Jays and Cardinals.
“It was time. I just knew. It was like when I decided to hang up my baseball spikes in 2005,” said Hammond. “And I took a leap of faith in 2013 when I left my job to start my food truck. I had no idea whether I would succeed, but I knew that I had to bet on myself or else I would have regretted it.
“Having the food truck has been an incredible way to share our food with people across the valley. The brick and mortar is just another way to continue that connection and keep doing something that I love and am passionate about.”
Hammond, who still retains a hint of his Mississippi drawl, said it took more than a year of searching to find the right place.
“We looked all around for the perfect place and stumbled across this one,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of second-generation places, and this one was in pretty bad shape. But we circled back 10 months later and were able to get it. We were patient, and it was worth it.”
After Hammond quit his day job to start his own food truck venture, selecting the name was a no-brainer.
The “magnolia” in Sweet Magnolia Smokehouse is his home-state’s official state flower — as pictured on the Mississippi state quarter issued in 2002. The magnolia also is the state’s official tree and Mississippi’s nickname is The Magnolia State.
And barbeque in Mississippi is paramount.
“Backyard barbeques were absolutely a staple of growing up in Mississippi, and a time to be close to your family,” said Hammond, who works alongside family in the food truck and restaurant.
“My grandmothers were both great cooks and a lot of the food they made came straight from their gardens. One thing about Southern cooks is they typically don’t write their recipes down. Everything is done from memory so I’ve adapted some of my favorite recipes from my childhood for my food truck and now the restaurant. I think they would be proud.”
His success with those recipes has made his Sweet Magnolia Smokehouse Food Truck an anticipated stop throughout the Valley.
In July alone, even with his restaurant opening, the truck had a dozen appearances scheduled in Chandler, Gilbert, Tempe, Scottsdale and Phoenix.
Why the popularity of Sweet Magnolia Smokehouse’s barbeque brisket, baby back ribs, pulled pork and chicken?
Hammond says it’s a combination of things, some of which have traveled a long way to provide special flavor.
“All of our meats are hand seasoned with a dry rub that I make, which is a balance of sweetness with a little kick,” he explained. “While sauce is important, I think the meat should be able to stand on its own, that’s why our motto is ‘Where Flavor Lives.’
“We use the low-and-slow method on a custom smoker I had built in Mississippi. I use Mississippi wood that my father chops and we meet halfway in Texas when my supply gets low,” he said. “From the rub to the wood, everything we put into our food is personal and done with care.”
And then there’s his penchant for personal service. As comment sites like Yelp indicate, it’s the food and the service that keeps his customers lining up again and again.
“Reputation is hard to build, and easy to ruin,” he averred. “This is something I’ve learned being a small business. Sometimes you only have one chance to make a positive impression. We want our customers to enjoy the food and be treated right.”
Besides the incredible meats prepared on the two 250-gallon, single-barrel drum smokers, the Sweet Magnolia Smokehouse menu offers a wealth of Southern sides including sweet potatoes, mac and cheese, potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, rice, mashed potatoes, and summer and zucchini squash.
All meals are accompanied by one or two of these, and Southern cornbread muffins.
The barbequed brisket, pulled pork and chicken can also be purchased by the pound. Catering is also available.
“We can cater for groups of 10 to 1,000 with enough notice,” said Hammond who noted his barbeque smokers “sometimes roll all night.”
And with Sweet Magnolia Smokehouse storefront restaurant open, what becomes of the food truck?
“We’ll continue to service our food truck to existing clients, and we’ll either find more help or discontinue the truck,” he said, obviously not savoring that option.
Sweet Magnolia Smokehouse is open Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Information: SweetMagnoliaSmokehouse.com.