21Country: 4th generation owner of Brooks BBQ & Chicken carrying family legacy into bright future

Selected as one of a dozen vendors to open in Electric Works Union Street Market
Updated: Sep. 20, 2022 at 5:30 PM EDT
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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - In 1966, Epsie Brooks founded the first black-owned barbecue restaurant in the city: Brooks BBQ and Chicken. For over five decades, it has remained in the family. ‘Big Ma’ as she was called by her children and grandchildren, started out delivering food to workers at factories across Fort Wayne. And in November, 4th generation owner Cameron Brooks is bringing the business full-circle, returning it to its roots, by leading it into the future.

Currently, Brooks caters, selling food in his truck outside the Marathon on Coldwater and Washington Center Roads. “I think barbecue is a staple, because it gives families something to come together,” he shared. “I would say, the secret to good barbecue is definitely patience. You can’t rush it… you gotta love it — if you don’t love it, it’s going to show through your work.”

Though Brooks says patience is key during cooking, its hours — even days of hard work when he’s operating the food truck. “It’s literally like, days of prep,” he told us. “Yesterday, I get up, go to all my stores. Then you got to prep everything. We gotta prep the truck, we gotta make sure we got all our trays, all our sides, water, and trash disposal. Clean multiple times a week. A lot of background stuff that goes into barbecue — and it can be real tedious too.” On any given Wednesday at the gas station, he’ll sell around 200 pounds of meat. During weekend events, that number will double to 400 pounds. On the rarest occasions, he’s prepared 700 pounds of meat.

And though a talent for cooking seems to be strong in the Brooks family, his future wasn’t always so clear. “At some point in the 90s, my aunt and grandfather, they partnered and came and took over until the early 2000s,” he explained. “And then my dad did it up until 2010, when he fell ill. That’s when I started to get in the picture.”

“I wanted to help, I wanted to be involved,” he continued. “I took big pride in taking the initiative to help my mom and help my family out. That’s how I learned I really enjoyed cooking.” After graduating high school, Brooks attended college, and later began a job at North Side High School. Though he loved what he did, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he belonged in the family business. “I had a singing group at the time, and we wanted to go on tour, so we were trying to figure out how to raise money,” he said. “We had an idea to do a dinner sell. I’m like ‘oh, yeah — you know my family, we got this BBQ sauce and everybody loves it!’”

“We post it,” he added, “and the post was like boom! Brooks is back! It went crazy.” And the sales that day, reflected the community’s excitement. Cameron acquired the rights to the company in 2013. He’s tried several locations, but really hit his stride with the food truck.

Earlier this year, Brooks was selected by charcoal giant Kingsford for their Preserve the Pit Fellowship. In addition to being showered with Kingsford swag and pallets of charcoal, he’s received mentorship in cooking and running a business — even receiving one-on-one training with pitmaster Pat Neely.

But perhaps one of the most exciting announcements is just weeks away, and it’s a bright indicator of the family’s legacy. Brooks BBQ & Chicken was accepted as a merchant for the Union Street Market. It’s one of over a dozen businesses that will operate in the year-round, indoor food market in Electric Works. After years of ups and downs, it’s a positive sign for Brooks who, in a sense, is returning to his great-grandmother’s factory origins — this time in the highly anticipated, reimagined use of the former General Electric campus near downtown. The Union Street Market is expected to open in November.

“I don’t take it lightly, the foundation that they laid. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for them,” he shared. “To know that they’re looking down on me and proud, watching seeing how they’re growing, and doing things.” Though Brooks is just getting started, he’s not ruling out handing over the smoker to his young son, eventually. “Before we got him into daycare, he would be out here with me,” Brooks smiled. “He’d always like to spray the grill and baste the meat down. He’s like my shadow.”

Until his brick and mortar location is up and running, you can visit Brooks BBQ and Chicken outside the Marathon gas station near Coldwater and Washington Center Roads. They’ll be open this Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m, and Friday at Wayne High School for lunch and the homecoming football game. Stay up-to-date on when and where their food truck will be, on their Facebook page.