Neighborhood Visionary: Judge’s BBQ

Judges-231x300Judge’s BBQ isn’t your average barbecue joint. But it’s not just the amazing food that sets Judge’s apart. It’s also the story of one man’s passion for barbecue, and how it helped bring hope and revival to one of Indianapolis’s most challenged neighborhoods.

For Judge Smith, the desire to cook started as a young man. As one of twelve children, he learned early on that if you want to eat well in big family, you either get to dinner early or you learn to cook for yourself. Judge chose to cook.

But it wasn’t until 2001, when Judge and his wife were operating a juice bar out of Indianapolis’s City Market, that Judge finally got the opportunity to share his unique brand of barbecue with the rest of the world. It was at this time that the Executive Director of the Westside Community Development Corporation (WCDC) approached Judge with an offer to open a new restaurant. Judge took the offer and never looked back.

Judge knew he was making a big gamble. While the building proposed for the restaurant was newly renovated by WCDC, it wasn’t in an ideal location. It resided right in the middle of Haughville, a working class neighborhood located on Indianapolis’s Near Westside. At the time, Haughville was a food desert, forcing residents to either travel out of the neighborhood for groceries or to buy food at the local gas station.

Despite these unfavorable conditions, Judge was confident he could make his restaurant work. Not because of the lack of places to eat in the neighborhood, but because he knew he could bring a great product – and positive change – to a community that desperately needed it.

Judge started by hiring a team of employees—and these weren’t people from affluent areas outside the community. They were people who called Haughville home. Most of them not only needed a job, but also a second chance. And while not every employee has worked out the way Judge had hoped, in general he is greatly satisfied with the success he’s had with those he hired from the surrounding neighborhood. “These are good people,” Judge said. “And I’m proud to be part of their community.”

So what’s the secret to Judge’s addictively delicious barbecue? “That’s easy,” says Judge. “It’s time. Our goal is to provide the very best barbecue in the city. You can’t do that unless you’re paying attention to the little things. And that takes time.”

Judge attributes a good portion of his success to the help he received from LISC and the Westside Community Development Corporation. They acquired and renovated the building on West Michigan Street for the BBQ restaurant. “Without them,” he said, “Judge’s BBQ wouldn’t exist.”

And while Judge believes his barbecue will get better with age, when it comes to his neighborhood, he believes the time is now. “I feel like we haven’t even scratched the surface yet. We’ve got so many more people to reach and opportunities to provide. So that’s what we’re working on right now. And I know we’ll be successful.”