Savory ribs bring visitors to Fort Kent

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff
Posted Aug. 23, 2008, at 3:43 p.m.

FORT KENT — Like sharks circling in the water, hungry drivers cruise slowly by, eyes, ears and, most especially, noses on high alert.

And just as sharks can detect prey miles away in the ocean, true barbecue aficionados know when the Rib Truck rolls into town.

“This is my best advertising,” John Freeman, Rib Truck owner and chef, said as he opened one of the ovens on his portable barbecue pit and was engulfed in sweet, savory smelling smoke. “Some people say their advertising goes up in smoke. My advertising is the smoke.”

Freeman and his wife Mary Freeman have been selling their barbecue baby-back ribs and pulled pork around Aroostook County for 13 years.

Sort of rib-gypsies, the couple travels from town to town in a modified van pulling the open-pit barbecue cooker.

For most of that time, alternating between Fort Kent, Madawaska, Caribou and Presque Isle, the Westmanland couple operated under the name Rib Crib.

But this summer a new, permanent location in Fort Kent brings a new name, Rib Truck.

“Rib Crib was already registered online,” Freeman said. “We have registered the domain name ‘Ribtruck.com.’”

A Freeman rib by any name would taste as sweet. Just ask any of the customers who started lining up Friday morning before the first rack of ribs was ready.

“I’ve been coming to see [John] as long as he’s been coming back to Fort Kent,” resident and self-professed barbecue expert Bob Michaud said. “His ribs are the best — even I can’t make them any better.”

As Freeman kept a close watch on the barbecuing ribs, turning racks and moving them from grill to warming area, a constant stream of traffic slowed and stopped next to his van at the KeyBank parking lot.

“Give me a half an hour or so, and they’ll be ready,” he would call out as the drivers pulled away, many checking their watches.

The trailer is a home-built affair from Freeman’s own design, though he said he has gotten a great deal of help.

In addition to taking the ribs around the designated Aroostook County circuit, the Freemans have towed the trailer, sauce and ribs to events around the state, including two showings at the Fryeburg Fair where both times they brought home the blue ribbon for best vendor.

But now the Freemans are ready to back off a bit from this gastronomic vagabond existence and plan to open their new, permanent diner on Fort Kent’s Main Street later this week. For now, Freeman said, food will be available on a take-out basis only.

“I grew up in Fort Kent, and my parents are still here,” Freeman said. “This is such a great town, [and] it’s always been a town that makes things happen for itself.”

Freeman, who as a member of the Marketing Fort Kent Advisory Committee, recently helped unveil Fort Kent’s new slogan, “America’s First Mile,” is looking forward to playing a more active role in the town.

“My conviction is downtowns and Main Streets are vital parts of the community,” he said. “I want to be part of that growth.”

Freeman first got hooked on barbecue while living and going to school in Boston. For a while he worked in that city in management, having been trained in the optician field.

“After we came back to Maine, I decided to do something different,” he said. “In the early ’90s I built this cooker.”

In fact, Freeman’s real start in the barbecue business began much earlier and much closer to home.

“I cooked my first outdoor meal just down the street at the [Fort Kent] Blockhouse,” he said. “I was a member of the Boy Scouts and built my first cooker there when I was 10 or 11.”

Today, Freeman keeps a lot of his business details under wraps — he would reveal neither his sauce recipe nor how many pounds of ribs he goes through on any given day.

He would say his sauce is a “South Carolina” version and that his ribs normally sell out within two hours of his opening for business.

“I get a lot of self-professed barbecue connoisseurs,” Freeman said. “It’s always exciting serving those people.”

Perhaps his highest compliment came from a man Freeman described as a “skeptic from North Carolina.”

Freeman gave the man a sample rib and waited for the reaction.

“He ate his rib, licked his chops and said to me, ‘Son, if you were to produce this kind of barbecue in North Carolina, we’d make you an instant citizen,’” Freeman said. “Comments like that keep me pretty humble.”

One of the first customers of the day Friday was Steve Coulombe and his mother, Rinette Coulombe. Now living in Ballston Spa, N.Y., Coulombe was visiting his hometown of Fort Kent for his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.

“I’ve not had these ribs before, but how can you pass by this smell?” Steve said. “He’s either going to sell out or cause a few accidents.”

Freeman’s new restaurant is a stone’s throw from where the van was parked Friday, and in between cooking and tending customers, he ran over for a quick inspection.

The small diner is spotless with the indoor, open pit vented and ready for cooking.

As for hours, “We’ll start cooking and sell until we have to put the ‘sold out’ sign out,” he said. “We hope to be open through the supper hours.”

In addition to the ribs, Freeman will be selling his pulled pork, baked beans and a variety of side dishes from the location.

The Freemans are also exploring the possibility of selling their ribs on the Internet and have run several successful test shipments.

“I’m a rib fanatic,” Tom Michaud said as he waited patiently for his order Friday. “John’s are just fantastic.”

Kathy Mayo was the next customer, who was there on orders from her husband.

“I had come for the pulled pork, but [Freeman] didn’t have any today so I was on my way home,” Mayo said. “I’d called my husband, and he told me to turn around and get some ribs. His ribs beat anyplace, anywhere.”

With such a devoted following, it would be easy to imagine rib fans coming to blows as the daily supply dwindled, but Freeman said his customers are always courteous and even cut deals to share the last racks of the day.

Since working out of his van puts Freeman at the mercy of the weather, he is looking forward to being indoors.

Almost as much as his customers.

“Dude, you are going to do great here,” Tom Michaud said after learning of the opening. “That’s the best news I’ve had in days.”

But this summer a new, permanent location in Fort Kent brings a new name, Rib Truck.

“Rib Crib was already registered online,” Freeman said. “We have registered the domain name ‘Ribtruck.com.’”

A Freeman rib by any name would taste as sweet. Just ask any of the customers who started lining up Friday morning before the first rack of ribs was even ready.

“I’ve been coming to see (John) as long as he’s been coming back to Fort Kent,” resident and self-professed barbecue expert Bob Michaud said. “His ribs are the best; even I can’t make them any better.”

As Freeman kept a close watch on the barbecuing ribs, turning racks and moving them from grill to warming area, a constant stream of traffic slowed and stopped next to his van at the Key Bank parking lot.

“Give me a half an hour or so and they’ll be ready,” he’d call out, as the drivers pulled away, many visibly checking their watches.

The trailer is a home-built affair from Freeman’s own design, though he said he’d gotten a great deal of help from some good people.

In addition to taking the ribs around the designated Aroostook County circuit, the Freemans have towed the trailer, sauce and ribs to events around the state, including two showings at the Fryeburg Fair where both times they brought home the blue ribbon for best vendor.

But now the Freemans are ready to back off a bit from this gastronomic vagabond existence and plan to open their new, permanent restaurant on Fort Kent’s Main Street later this week.

“I grew up in Fort Kent and my parents are still here,” Freeman said. “This is such a great town (and) it’s always been a town that makes things happen for itself.”

Freeman, who recently helped unveil Fort Kent’s new slogan, “America’s First Mile,” as a member of the Marketing Fort Kent Advisory Committee, is looking forward to playing a more active role in the town’s vibrancy.

“My conviction is downtowns and main streets are vital parts of the community,” he said. “I want to be part of that growth.”

Freeman first got hooked on barbecue while living and going to school in Boston. For a while he worked in that city in management having been trained in the optician field.

“After we came back to Maine I decided to do something different,” he said. “In the early 90s I built this cooker.”

In fact, Freeman’s real start in the barbecue business began much earlier and much closer to home.

“I cooked my first outdoor meal just down the street at the (Fort Kent) Blockhouse,” he said. “I was a member of the Boy Scouts and built my first cooker there when I was 10 or 11.”

Today, Freeman keeps a lot of his business details under wraps – he’d reveal neither his sauce recipe nor how many pounds of ribs he goes through on any given day.

He would say his sauce is a “South Carolina” version and that his ribs normally sell out within two hours of his opening for business.

“I get a lot of self professed barbecue connoisseurs,” Freeman said. “It’s always exciting serving those people.”

Perhaps his highest compliment came from a man Freeman described as a “skeptic from North Carolina.”

Freeman gave the man a sample rib and waited for the reaction.

“He ate his rib, licked his chops and said to me, ‘Son, if you were to produce this kind of barbecue in North Carolina we’d make you an instant citizen,” Freeman said. “Comments like that keep me pretty humble.”

One of the first customers of the day on Friday was Steve Coulombe and his mother Rinette Coulombe. Now living in Ballston Spa, New York, Coulombe was visiting his hometown of Fort Kent for his parent’s 50th wedding anniversary.

I’ve not had these ribs before, but how can you pass by this smell?” Steve said. “He’s either going to sell out or cause a few accidents.”

Freeman’s new restaurant is a stone’s throw from where the van was parked on Friday and in-between cooking and tending customers he ran over for a quick inspection.

The small diner is spotless with the indoor, open pit vented and ready for cooking. For now, Freeman said, food will be available on a takeout basis only.

As for hours, “We’ll start cooking and sell until we have to put the ‘sold out’ sign out,” he said. “We hope to be open through the supper hours.”

In addition to the ribs, Freeman will be selling his pulled pork, baked beans and a variety of side dishes from the location.

The Freemans are also exploring the possibility of selling their ribs on the Internet and have run several successful test shipments.

“I’m a rib fanatic,” Tom Michaud said as he waited patiently for his order on Friday. “John’s are just fantastic.”

Kathy Mayo was the next customer, who was there on orders from her husband.

“I had come for the pulled pork but (Freeman) didn’t have any today so I was on my way home,” Mayo said. “I’d called my husband and he told me to turn around and get some ribs. His ribs beat anyplace, anywhere.”

With such a devoted following it would easy to imagine rib fans coming to blows as the daily supply dwindled, but Freeman said his customers are always courteous and even cut deals to share the last racks of the day.

Since working out of his van does put Freeman at the mercy of the weather, he is looking forward to being indoors.

Almost as much as his customers.

“Dude, you are going to do great here,” Tom Michaud said, after learning of the upcoming opening. “That’s the best news I’ve had in days.’

http://bangordailynews.com/2008/08/23/news/savory-ribs-bring-visitors-to-fort-kent/ printed on August 1, 2014