Cooking Low and Slow in Billtown
by Tom Speicher, video editor. Photos by Jennifer A. Cline, except as credited.
The door to a large, stainless steel smoker opens to reveal 1,000 pounds of meat.
Twelve slowly rotating racks take turns reaching eye level. The brisket has cooked for 14 hours, the chicken halves for half that amount of time. The ribs went in five hours ago, and the chicken wings have joined them for 180 minutes.
The chef closely inspects the smoker’s delectable contents. He admires the charred appearance and savors the sweet aroma, enhanced by the cherry and apple wood logs placed in the smoker hours ago. A slight smile crosses his face. Like the steamy meats, he has come full circle.
George E. Logue III first barbecued with his father while growing up in Trout Run.
"It was sit around and wait because it took so long," laughs the 2010 Pennsylvania College of Technology graduate. "It was a great feeling, after waiting so long, to have a good piece of food. I always wanted to open the grill and was told not to."
Today at Acme Barbecue & Catering Co. in Williamsport, Logue can open the grill whenever he wants. He’s the owner/chef of the restaurant that has become a downtown culinary staple.
Hundreds of hungry patrons squeeze into Acme’s 1,200 square feet of space five days a week. Whether ordering takeout, tackling a stuffed sandwich at the front window’s counter, or relishing a sit-down meal with friends on the back patio, all are here for Logue’s version of Southern-style barbecue. If one of his nine sauces drips on their clothing while they chow down, so be it. Logue’s barbecue supersedes an inconvenient trip to the dry cleaner.
"I always say anything cooked low and slow over wood is Southern-style barbecue," says a relaxed Logue, while sitting on one of the patio’s picnic–table benches. "Between 200 and 250 degrees is considered low. Slow depends on the cut of meat, but some of our meats are on the smoker for 14 to 15 hours at a time."
Like the brisket recently taken out of the gas-powered, wood-assisted smoker. The fat is cut away from the brisket before it’s sliced for the lunch crowd that will soon arrive. Apple cider vinegar sauce will be brushed on the ribs. The chicken halves will be cut down and their backs used to make stock. As for the chicken wings, they look ready to be devoured even before Buffalo sauce is applied.
"When we first opened, it was get up super early, prep all the food, go to bed late and repeat," says Logue, who is married and the proud father of two young daughters. "But I have a good team now and lots of help. I still try to do some of the prep work here if my staff hasn’t already done it. They are awesome."
Logue belies the stereotype of the wild-haired, hot-tempered chef, prone to throwing insults and utensils at cowering subordinates. He sports short black hair and a neatly groomed beard and treats the Acme staff like family members working toward a common goal. His calm, yet determined demeanor permeates the establishment and reflects an experience that has nothing to do with food.
From July 2005 through May 2006, Logue served as a gunner in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in the volatile Ramadi region of central Iraq.
"I can’t quite put a number on how many times I saw combat, but every day you had to be vigilant, because anything could happen at any time," he says. "We were tasked with multiple things, such as securing areas, searching houses, questioning and gathering intel from locals, providing security to highways, searching for IEDs."
The former infantryman recalls scary circumstances but says he never felt fear in the moment; that emotion came afterward.
"A lot of veterans say they don’t take their lives for granted now. Honestly, I never thought about that when I was in a sticky situation over there. But now that I look back on it, I totally agree with that statement," he says.
Logue enlisted in the Army National Guard while a senior at Montoursville Area High School. He wished to build on his family’s tradition of military service and, at the same time, secure a solid funding source for college. His initial choice was West Chester University to study business management. Logue soon discovered that he preferred a spatula to a spreadsheet.
"I was always more of an artistic person rather than business-minded," he says. "When I was at West Chester, I would grill with my friends, and that’s when I realized I really liked doing it. After you cook a dish and somebody enjoys it, it’s nice to see that food can bring happiness. My dad always wanted to do culinary arts as a career. I guess that kind of rubbed off on me."
That’s obviously an understatement as Logue’s morning is consumed with prep work for Acme. Pork and turkey are pulled into individual pieces for soon-to-be-made sandwiches. Green beans are sautéed with butter and tiny pieces of bacon. A sheet of cornbread is sliced into equal proportions. Shredded brisket is mixed with crushed tomatoes, jalapenos, and lots of herbs and spices for the restaurant’s popular chili. The day’s special is Thai chicken quinoa bowl with peanut sauce.
"The first day we were open, we were out of food by 5 o’clock, and we were supposed to be open until 9," Logue says with a chuckle. "We just had a chicken recipe, a rib recipe and a couple of sides. Quality control with barbecue is difficult because you have a cooked product that you’re cooking ahead of time. You can’t just throw a brisket on a smoker or pork shoulder on a smoker and get it done quickly. We still run out occasionally of certain items, but we haven’t run out of everything again."
Logue learned about quality control and other essentials by earning a bachelor’s degree in culinary arts and systems at Penn College.
"From time management to purchase orders, production schedules, forecasting, menu development, cost analysis of menu items – all that stuff I learned in school," he says. "I rely on it every day, a lot."
Despite growing up in the region, Logue didn’t know Penn College offered culinary majors. His father suggested he look into it after Logue left West Chester with the dream of pursuing a culinary career following his pending tour of duty in Iraq.
"I saw great things about the school. There was a bachelor’s degree you could do, and a lot of other culinary schools offered just two or three years. You had baking, hospitality, and they covered a broad range of stuff," he says.
Logue also discovered some family history at the institution. His late grandfather George E. Sr. graduated from Penn College predecessor Williamsport Technical Institute in 1945. The elder Logue, later named an outstanding alumnus of the college, developed five patents related to heavy equipment and created and operated a very successful construction and machining company in northcentral Pennsylvania.
While proud of his family name, Logue wanted to make his own mark at the college in transitioning from soldier in Iraq to stateside student.
"It was a nice transition because school kept me busy and kept my mind active, and I didn’t have time to focus on the negative effects of transitioning into civilian life that so many people have to deal with."
Instead, classes, 10-hour labs, homework and part-time employment at area restaurants consumed Logue. The busier the better, especially when it came to his favorite school-related requirement: working at the college’s acclaimed Le Jeune Chef Restaurant.
“I really liked having a lot of tickets in front of me and having a team of people behind me, and we all had our own job to do,” Logue says. “In the end, everything was orchestrated so well into one dish. That was pretty cool.”
His professors appreciated such an attitude.
"I remember him as a quiet, dedicated, hospitality–focused student," says Chef Paul E. Mach, an assistant professor of hospitality management/culinary arts. "His goal was always to get the job done right, to the guests’ and his classmates’ benefit."
"George brought with him a level of maturity. His military background and strong family history gave him a work ethic that was second to none," says Chef Michael J. Ditchfield, instructor of hospitality management/culinary arts. "He knew why he was here. He knew what he wanted and expected out of his education."
Both Mach and Ditchfield occasionally bring Logue back to campus to offer insights for today’s students.
"George was a nontraditional student who excelled academically and had served his country," Mach says. "That background demonstrates qualities that our current students need to see as valuable: service to others and pride in accomplishment."
Logue, who has catered the college’s employee picnic the past few years, is happy to give back to his alma mater.
"Every single culinary and hospitality instructor was amazing," he says. "They were all great people to work with. I’m very grateful for my education."
Initially, Logue thought he would use his education as a springboard to a job at a fancy restaurant in New York City or Philadelphia. However, weekends spent barbecuing with his father and a business proposition convinced him to stay put.
"We developed recipes that people were really enjoying," Logue says. "People we gave the food to would say to us that we should open a barbecue restaurant. Then my dad came to me with that opportunity."
Logue’s father, George Jr., vice president of Glenn O. Hawbaker Inc., a State College-based construction and engineering firm, convinced him to open his own establishment. During Logue’s senior year, they bought a building, gutted it and remodeled with a vision of bringing barbecue to downtown Williamsport.
"There weren’t any Southern-style barbecue restaurants in Williamsport at that time," Logue says. "To have family support was nice. I made a lot of good friends in the restaurant business, too, while I was going to school. It was a no-brainer to stay here."
Juggling school requirements with barbecue recipe development in his apartment and business startup challenges downtown could have overwhelmed many students. Logue wasn’t fazed.
"I was used to hard work through the Army and growing up with my dad in the construction business," he says. "I wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty."
"I knew he could handle it," Ditchfield says. "He was in the Army Reserves as a student. He always had a job while he was a student, and he continued to do excellent work. George loved barbecue and had a plan."
The plan came to fruition when Acme opened its doors in April 2010, about three weeks before graduation. The morning of his commencement, as his classmates fiddled with their caps and gowns, Logue was already employing his education at his new restaurant.
"People who aren’t even interested in the restaurant industry could have gone there and learned how to run a restaurant by the end," he says. "They covered a lot of stuff real well. I learned foundations of cooking. If you know that, you can do anything."
Like put your own stamp on barbecue. As Logue methodically prepares for the pending lunchtime rush at Acme, it’s obvious that he doesn’t believe in copious amounts of sauce for his recipes.
"I really like condiments and sauces, and I really think they can help a dish out. But just to take a pile of barbecue sauce and throw it on meat and mix it up, I don’t think that’s necessarily barbecue," he explains. "I give customers a base flavor with the pulled pork, brisket or whatever they order, and they can choose the sauce they want to put on it to finish it the way they like it."
Logue and his Shed Barbecue and Blues Joint teammates celebrate their World Grand Championship win at the 2015 World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of George E. Logue III
Selections include spicy, savory, sweet, tangy and hot sauces representing barbecue hotbeds throughout the country, from the Carolinas to Texas to Tennessee. Logue knows those regions, thanks to attending national barbecue conventions and participating in competitions at the highest level. For the past five years, Logue has been a member of the successful Shed Barbeque and Blues Joint team based out of Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
At the 2015 World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis, Tennessee, the team won the whole hog competition and earned the title of world grand champions.
"I think there were 250 teams and 16 countries that competed, and we took first place out of all them," Logue says without a hint of arrogance.
He doesn’t have time to brag. He’s thinking about Acme’s new catering venue outside of Montoursville. The email messages consuming the computer in his cramped office. The bills that must be paid. The products he has to order from trusted vendors. And, of course, lunch.
Employees scurry into position to handle the throng of city workers anxious to satisfy their appetites. Orders are relayed from the frontline staff. Steam emanating from the various dishes simmering in the kitchen partially obscures the "I Love Bacon" sign on the side chalkboard wall.
Logue vigorously shakes a stovetop pan containing green beans before efficiently crafting a pulled pork sandwich and coleslaw platter. He glances up at the growing line of customers. A slight smile crosses his face.
George E. Logue III is home.
Recipe: Acme Barbecue Baked Pit Beans
- 2x 15-ounce cans kidney beans
- 2x 15-ounce cans great northern beans
- 5 slices bacon, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 cup onions, small diced
- 1 cup red peppers, small diced
- 2/3 cup water
- 1 pint chili sauce
- 1/3 cup molasses
- 1/3 cup brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons dry rub
- 1/3 cup Acme Barbecue sauce
- 3 tablespoons mustard
- 2 teaspoons hot sauce
- Drain beans of their liquid.
- Sauté bacon until almost crisp; add veggies and garlic and sauté until tender.
- Meanwhile, mix water, chili sauce, molasses, brown sugar, dry rub, barbecue sauce, mustard and hot sauce in a bowl.
- Combine all ingredients in a bowl and transfer to a baking pan.
- We smoke ours for 4 hours at 225 degrees F, or you can bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes to an hour.
- You can substitute any barbecue sauce, and any store-bought dry rub will work just fine.
Courtesy of George E. Logue III