On a bright Friday afternoon, a trail of smoke blew through the empty parking lot in front of Revolution Concert House. It carried a savory smell radiating from an 11-foot-long open-pit grill stacked with slabs of brisket, racks of ribs and whole chickens.
As juices from the meat popped and sizzled over the fire, Mike Mullikin stood over his handiwork, a grin on his face. It was a typical afternoon at Cutter's Grand BBQ.
"Doing barbecue has always been a social thing for me," said Mullikin, co-owner of Cutter's. "If I didn't meet such nice people every weekend, I wouldn't be doing this."
Cutter's opened in 2010, but Mullikin's barbecuing experience stretches back to a childhood spent on a 40-acre ranch raising cattle with his father—Cutter was the name of a beloved pet bull. Cutter's co-owner Christina Mullikin said she recalled seeing a picture of her husband, Mike, when he was 18, cooking barbecue from an open pit he built out of an old oil drum. Christina said Mike's longtime passion for barbecue was inspired and nurtured by the latter's father.
"[My dad] was one of the toughest I ever knew, working around all that heat," said Mike.
Later in life, when Mike was in the seventh grade, he spent most of his spare time helping his father with their tiling business. While working on residential remodeling projects in California, Mullikin and his father would often stop in San Luis Obispo for the weekly farmer's market. Mullikin recalled the lines of people waiting to get tri-tip from the open-pit barbecues.
"That's when [Mike] and his dad started talking about building the grill," said Christina.
Mike and his father built the grill in 1989—the same one he uses today. They started their own business cooking tri-tip for special events and festivals throughout California. When Mike moved to Boise in 1997, he continued catering barbecue for special events but primarily worked on tiling and remodeling projects. He met Christina in 2009 when he was working on remodeling projects in the Capitol building.
"With all his tiling, remodeling, building and cooking, Mike isn't just a jack of all trades but more like a master of all trades," said Christina.
Mike was laid off later that year and Christina was also between jobs. Without a steady income, the Mullikins started brainstorming ideas for work, looking for more and more creative solutions.
"We kept on thinking, 'What are we going to do?'" said Christina. "We came up with the idea to open up the barbecue business on the weekends with Mike's grill."
Though Cutter's is only open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Christina said they easily put in 50 hours of work per week. Mike said while most other barbecue grills are partially automated, their open-pit grill requires constant labor, attention and maintenance.
"It's two times the work, but cooking over the pit is way more fun," he said.
Twice a month, the Mullikins spend the night in their trailer in the parking lot to make their signature brisket. At around 8 p.m. on a Friday, Mike and Christina begin the 14- to 18-hour process. They get up every few hours to put more wood on the fire and turn the meat. Mike said the combination of time, smoke and open fire gives the meat its unique flavor.
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"Barbecue is as much of an art as anything else Mike does," Christina added. "It's the experience he has while cooking that makes it worth it."
On a given weekend, the Mullikins fill about 160 orders per day—orders that could feed anywhere from one person to a group of 50 people. Cutter's attracts customers not only from around the Treasure Valley but from across the U.S.: Washington, Oregon, Utah and Kentucky are just a few of the states their customers come from. Christina said they even have a fan living in Japan.
"It's all promoted by word of mouth," she said. "We only recently started advertising on Facebook."
Starting as a way to make ends meet, the Mullikins have established a growing business by doing what they love.
"You know how when you're camping and you're cooking something over a campfire, the food just tastes better?" said Mike. "That's what we want to do here."