How does a fine dining chef with culinary training and experience on the east coast and in Europe end up opening a barbecue restaurant in Paxton, population 4,220? It all circles back to his roots.
Benjamin Grice grew up in Paxton, went to North Central College in Naperville and on to Arizona for chef’s training. While in Boston, he and his wife were expecting their first child and decided to move closer to his parents in Paxton.
Ben had always tinkered with barbecue, had a small smoker and while in Boston would cook for the restaurant’s crew. He began creating different barbecue sauces and says that’s how his barbecue philosophy started.
After returning to Paxton, he had the opportunity to compete on Chris Engelbrecht’s barbecue team. Engelbrecht builds smokers at his Paxton-based company and Ben says competing with Engelbrecht opened his eyes to the Kansas City Barbecue Society circuit. He discovered a love for the challenge of live fire cooking.
“There are so many factors,” he says. “It’s the size and age of the log, humidity, wind speed and other factors that contribute to the final product. At the end of the day, you need your product to be the same every time. The people that are good at it can figure out how to manage all those variables and I never get bored, whether at work or home.” He was hooked.
Ben never expected to get into casual dining. “With my background, I figured I would continue with a fine dining approach, but when we moved to central Illinois, there really wasn’t a place where I wanted to pursue that,” he says.
He realized he wanted to do something to help downtown Paxton and create local jobs. He tested ideas and created the Paxton Swine and Dine Festival, which grew rapidly. He had ideas about how he wanted to do barbecue, make sauces and how fresh he wanted his ingredients. It was the impetus for him to purchase an existing restaurant.
It was a good-sized gamble for a town the size of Paxton. “I had a lot of friends and family ask why I didn’t open in Champaign since I could have made a lot more money,” Ben explains. “But that wasn’t the point of the project. I wanted to bring in local jobs and grow a business from the small town I grew up in. I’m very proud of that.”
Humble Hog sources everything it can locally. The tables are made from the original wood from the Paxton bowling alley and the chairs are mismatched because they were purchased from local antique shops. “When you talk about supporting local, I took it to every level I could,” Ben says. “Everything on the walls, the old church pews for seating, everything was purchased here. I think a lot of local business owners support each other. If small towns aren’t supporting themselves, that’s a tough road. For me, it was never about the size of the crowd. I wanted to do something in my hometown before I did it anywhere else. This will always be my baby – the original.”
Humble Hog serves a variety of items, all homemade. Most popular are the pulled pork and brisket. Ben says he always judges other barbecue places based on how well they do pulled pork, so he wanted to make sure he had it right. The pulled pork can be found on the Pig Pile, a plate covered with shoestring fries sprinkled with Humble Hog rub, homemade cheese sauce, pulled pork, barbecue sauce and topped with sliced jalapenos. It’s one of their best sellers.
The Pig Mac is huge in size and popularity. Hungry one day, Ben made it as a joke and loved it. It’s a pulled pork sandwich with mac and cheese, slices of bacon and jalapenos. “It’s a whole lot of food,” laughs Ben. “If you use the paper wrapper, you have a chance of picking it up and eating it. It’s almost a bragging rights sandwich – it’s just so big.”
Besides pork and brisket, you can order turkey, rib tips and smoked sausage. Specials change daily. One of the most popular is smoked wings. Ben says that one time between online orders and people waiting in line, they sold 1,000 wings in 8 minutes! However, due to the case cost of wings quadrupling due to COVID-19, they are currently paused.
Sides include shoestring fries or sweet potato fries, fried okra, fried pickles, coleslaw, pit beans, mac and cheese, green beans and corn muffins. All are made in house and buns are sourced from a local bakery. Humble Hog also offers a variety of Illinois beer on tap.
All service ware is compostable including cups, plates and eating utensils. Ben explains that as they planned for more takeout during pandemic shutdowns, they had to make a tough decision. Earth-friendly items are more expensive, but they didn’t want to buy the cheaper Styrofoam containers. All plates and bowls are made from wheat and the cups from corn. According to Ben, the cups will “turn to dirt” in 90 days.
Just released, Humble Hog sauces, rub and spicy pickles can be purchased online. Customers would ask to buy cups of the sauce or rub and now they can. They will also be available in local grocery stores.
The business keeps evolving and Ben recently purchased a building in Knoxville, Tenn., which will house a much larger Humble Hog. He hopes that location will be one of many more in the future.
“When we opened, I wanted it to be like grandma’s house where everyone is welcome,” he says. “I didn’t want a hostess or reservations. We are sitting on a church pew with a bowling alley table, that’s about as comfortable as it gets. The vibe is laid back with old school blues music and dim lighting. It’s very relaxed. I always tell people to make themselves at home.”