Small Town Spotlight: The Story of This West Yellowstone BBQ and How It Ended Up on National TV

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Montana — Among the many dining options just outside the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park is a barbecue that found its way onto the Food Network less than a week after opening.

Firehole Bar-B-Que Co. had only been open four days when celebrity chef Guy Fieri decided the food was so good it had to be featured on his “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” show.

Julie Shults, owner of the restaurant with husband Mike Shults, described the turbulent experience to EastIdahoNews.com, saying the two looked at each other after Fieri left and exclaimed, “What just happened? ?”

Julie Shults, co-owner of Firehole Bar-B-Que Co. stands in front of a sign autographed by Guy Fieri following his visit less than a week after the restaurant opened. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com

Since then, lines have wrapped around the block with people wanting to try the traditional barbecue – ribs, pulled pork and brisket – and the less than traditional corn salad.

But what happened in the months leading up to Fieri’s visit is just as exciting as what happened in the four years since.

How the restaurant was born

Julie and Mike are the former owners of Lil’ Mike’s Bar-B-Que in Rigby. Five years ago they were asked to put on a snowmobile show in West Yellowstone.

Firehole Bar-B-Que Co., West Yellowstone
The Firehole Bar-B-Que Co. menu and corn salad. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com

The inhabitants were struck by the food.

“People were laughing and laughing that they would like us to come here full time,” Julie said.

One of those residents was Jerry Schmier, a local businessman who was in the process of buying a building he thought was perfect for the Shutls.

They didn’t have much, but Julie, Mike and their family “marred” their way to opening the restaurant – a decision Julie described as “do-or-die”.

“We were actually living in a fifth wheel on the side of someone’s property. With six people,” she said. “It was very tough, but we succeeded. It was our dream, it was our passion. … We couldn’t afford it to fail.

After the boost Firehole received with Episode Fieri – Season 29, Episode 9: “Brisket to Bison” – the Shults family was finally able to move out of the trailer and into a house. But, again, Schmier was there to lend an assist.

With all of the couple’s money tied up in the restaurant, the Shults family could not afford to buy a house. So Schmier bought a house in West Yellowstone and negotiated a lease-to-own agreement with them.

As Julie explained, Schmier is the reason their business is in West Yellowstone, and they were able to survive there. But he is only one representative of the tight-knit community created by West Yellowstone.

Other business owners, still four years after Firehole opened, will contact Julie to check on how things are going and if her family needs anything.

“We all support each other,” she said of the residents of West Yellowstone, which has a population of around 1,000.

Community Support and Aftermath

This community is quick to support others like it.

With the park closed following the June 13 flood, businesses in West Yellowstone found themselves without the visitors the park provided for just over a week. And while business owners are glad the park has reopened, they realize other communities near the still-closed north and northeast entrances may be forced to survive without an entire season.

“If we were closed for an entire season, it would ruin us financially,” Julie said.

So Julie, along with other West Yellowstone businesses and the city’s Chamber of Commerce, are working to help their northern brethren operate out of West Yellowstone.

Julie offers discounted food to these businesses and their customers. She is also pushing other restaurants and accommodations to do the same.

As she tells her children, “The good times and the bad prepare you for the journey you are about to take in life.”

Firehole Bar-B-Que Co., West Yellowstone
Firehole employees prepare a plate of ribs with corn salad. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com

Julie believes that her family business has a purpose.

As business picked up after the episode ‘DDD’, Mike told him that the restaurant needed another smoker as the existing one inside Lil’ Mike’s trailer was no longer enough.

Julie called Old Hickory, the company that makes Firehole smokers, and got a $38,000 quote for the twin smokers she ordered.

Stressed out and in need of an escape, the couple went to the Peppermill Hotel and Casino in Reno, Nevada – their normal stress buster.

There, Mike hit a slot machine jackpot for $37,000.

Julie used the winnings to order the new twin smokers that night – the smokers Mike named Cheech and Chong.

Firehole Bar-B-Que Co., West Yellowstone
The back of the restaurant, including the Lil’ Mike’s Bar-B-Que trailer and the smoking twins – Cheech and Chong – cooked most of the food served inside. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com

While Firehole embraces and serves the small community of West Yellowstone, it has created its own far-reaching community. Firehole employs a Jamaican, who has worked there seasonally for about three years, and three men from Turkey.

It makes sense to throw an employee night so broadly. As Julie explained, she’s spoken with customers who first heard of her restaurant while camping in Wyoming or shopping in Florida. She had visitors from all 50 states and countless countries.

Given her popularity, Julie hopes to expand the Firehole brand at some point — she’s always been a fan of the culinary scene in Eagle, Idaho.

Firehole Bar-B-Que Co. is located at 120 Firehole Avenue and opens at 11 a.m. seven days a week and closes at 10 p.m. — or when the meat runs out — during Yellowstone National Park season.

Firehole BBQ Express will be open all winter for the first time this year. It opens every day at 4 p.m. and doesn’t close until there are.

Firehole Bar-B-Que Co., West Yellowstone
Firehole Express offers a drive-thru and catering menu for park visitors, including picnic packs. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com

For more information, visit the Firehole website — here — or Facebook page — here.

Small Town Spotlight wants to shine a light on everything happening in small town Idaho. If you know someone or something in one of Idaho’s many small towns that deserves to be featured on Small Town Spotlight, email [email protected] and include “spotlight” in the subject line.

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