Big Fatty's Spanking Shack: funny name, serious struggle.
"The food has never been the problem," says Gail Patterson, who originally founded Big Fatty's as a catering company specializing in spicy foods and barbecue out of her Valley View home in 1996. "It's always about something else."
She's not kidding. Gail and husband Ricky have reinvented their business model three times in the last 10 years, and they're just hoping this is the time they get it right. Big Fatty's Spanking Shack currently operates as a miniature bodega, selling goods like duck eggs, local honey and Gail's ever-changing catering creations to the people of Denton. The pair's sense of humor shines through in their food, which includes the signature spicy meatball dish dubbed "Spanked Balls." Even the store's building is having a laugh, advertising its presence next to an auto repair shop with an enormous mural of pork ribs.
But back in 2005, they were Big Fatty's On the Square, a barbecue and Tex-Mex restaurant located in downtown Valley View. The 2008 financial crisis forced the Pattersons to shutter, and Gail says it wasn't the best idea anyway; running a restaurant meant they couldn't simultaneously keep their catering business afloat.
But don't blame them. Blame Al Roker. The NBC weatherman and television personality took an interest in the Pattersons' food after the duo took home awards at cooking competitions across the country and attracted media attention for various mail-order products, including their signature Spanking Rub and spicy cornbread mix. The host invited the pair to appear on his defunct Food Network travel show, Roker on the Road, and that's where Gail says they made a huge, tiny mistake.
"At the end of the program, he asked us our plans for the future, and we said, 'We're going to open a restaurant on the square in Valley View.' After that, we had no choice," she says with a laugh. "It's like we're backpedaling -- we start out doin' really good, and then something happens."
But this time, the pair has Denton in their corner. Although they hadn't met back then, Gail and Ricky both share history with the town, working at local food co-ops as young hippies in the mid-1970s. Gail holds two degrees from the University of North Texas in advertising design and mass communication, her background giving the Big Fatty's brand a step up with logos, signs and ads she designs herself.
Keeping that in mind, it seems only fair to ask her about the place's name.
"The name Big Fatty's got started because of big fatties," she says. "I'm really pro-hemp. I believe in it. That's all I can say."
The duo's dedication to hemp isn't some wannabe-rasta front, either. One of Gail's first creations was habanero hemp seed biscotti, which she says gains a signature crunch from the extra ingredient. Everything sold at the shack is legal, she says, but it's safe to say that if House Bill 2165 passes in Texas, repealing marijuana prohibition, the two might discover some interesting new recipes.
"Sometimes we had to change our name when we did food shows, we didn't want to associate ourselves with marijuana. But now, who cares? They sell hemp seeds at Sam's Club! That's how you know you're mainstream," she says.
Before opening the Spanking Shack in Denton last July, the Pattersons sold tacos at the Denton Community Market and offered Southwestern-inspired tapas at bars around the city. Even now, Gail maintains her catering duties, hosting the green room for this year's Thin Line Film Fest and serving meals to volunteers at the 35 Denton music festival. She cooks the food for the shack and her catering clients on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, then schleps every last rib and jar of pimento cheese to stock the tiny store's assortment of fridges, freezers and shelves.
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One of the couple's biggest goals is to relocate their cooking facilities to a larger space in town. Currently, Big Fatty's creations all originate from a 20-by-30-foot commercial kitchen in Gail and Ricky's backyard in Valley View -- a cramped culinary workshop they call the House of Pain. Despite wanting to move, Gail says they owe that kitchen a lot. For one thing, they wouldn't be married without it.
"Ricky was my electrician. He wired up the whole House of Pain," Gail says. "I started feeding him some goat sausage and polenta and stuff, and we started talking. We haven't shut up in 16 years."
"17 years," Ricky quietly corrects her.
"Oh, my God," she smiles. "Has it been that long?"