Joe Hudson, better known as Alabama Joe, rests on a folding chair in front of his place of business, on the corner of De Sales Place and Broadway Avenue in Brooklyn. He is a quiet, unassuming presence who waves hello to virtually every passer by. Most he knows by name.
It’s where Hudson sells his custom grills and smokers.
The J and Z trains rumble overhead as he tells me how he came to sell custom barbecue grills and smokers in Brooklyn. He moved to New York, from Alabama in July 1977. For many years he worked as the executive vice president of a trucking company in Brooklyn. In 1997, he retired. He taught himself to make barbecue like slow-smoked ribs and chicken. But he couldn’t find the right grill, one that kept the charcoal far enough away from the meat. He wondered if he could make one himself.
At that point, Hudson had done arc welding in high school, but was in no way a metal worker. Someone told Hudson that there was no way he could make a grill from scratch.
“That’s the wrong thing to say to me,” he said with a hearty laugh. He found a used MIG welding machine for sale and taught himself to use it. Then, he fabricated a grill out of an old oil can. His friends and neighbors were impressed, and a few asked if he could make them one.
“I thought, why not? This would be a career I’d like to do,” he said.
By 2001, it was his full-time job, especially in the summer.
“The two weeks prior to Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day are the busiest for me,” he said.
Hudson is now selling so many grills, that he employs three other people just to keep up with demand. All the grills are made on the Broadway lot. I asked Mike Hall, who sits out front with Hudson, if he worked for him too.
“Well, in a way. I’m pretty much a salesman,” he said.
“I have customers from Virginia, Canada, Georgia all over.” he told me. How did they hear about him, I wondered. “The internet, from the website I built,” he explained.
Hudson had taught himself how to do web design around 2001.
“An Argentinian lady came by and asked if I could make a grill like the kind they have back in Argentina. So I figured it out.”
He also taught himself to make gas grills. I asked him if that was a dangerous task.
“Yes. But only if you don’t know what you’re doing.” he said.
Hudson clearly knows what he’s doing.
All photos courtesy of Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein