photograph by Travis Dove

Okay, here’s the plan. You live your whole life in this little town of several thousand people. You don’t go off to college, and you don’t seek an executive position with a fast-track company offering excellent chances for advancement. You just stay right here and work. You open a little place — nothing fancy or even very noticeable, not even on the main highway. You put in day after day of long, inconvenient hours doing hot, dirty, greasy, back-hurting, splinter-in-your-finger, eye-stinging, foot-aching work. And you do it all again the next day. And the next.

After thirty years, you’re famous in your field. You’ve received dozens of awards. You’re praised in national magazines and on network television. Presidents try your product and offer their compliments. And people from all over beat a path to your little, unsophisticated town — it calls itself “the Collard Capital of the World,” for Pete’s sake — just to buy your product. They even tell you they’re fixing to transport it halfway around the world, to Turkey or someplace. You’ve never had an advertising agency or public-relations campaign. Shoot, for years, you didn’t even have a sign out front. Just word of mouth.

James Henry Howell has been working at the Skylight for more than two decades. photograph by Travis Dove

Ayden, located in Pitt County and twelve miles south of Greenville, is well known in the region for some state-championship-caliber 1-A football over at Ayden-Grifton High School. But the local team never pulled off a play as big as that. Something that unlikely, that American, could happen only in the world of barbecue, where the thing that matters ultimately is the verdict the public renders on your work. No use just to plan it or talk about it. You’ve got to produce — every day.

Founder Walter B. “Pete” Jones (who never used the Walter B.) died in 2005. He never wanted to do anything else. “I’d sit in school, as far back as the fifth or sixth grade, and daydream about having my own barbecue place,” he remembered. After high school, while acquaintances with stars in their eyes were daydreaming about little else but getting out of Ayden, Pete went to work cooking barbecue for his uncle, then he finally opened a business of his own in 1947. Nearly forty years later, he found someone to build a silver-painted, wooden dome — vaguely like the one atop the United States Capitol, but smaller — on top of his otherwise undistinguished, brick building. National Geographic had just identified his place as the barbecue capital of the world. Considering all his previous awards, and since the restaurant was a little off the beaten track, he figured he might as well make it easier for people to know this was the place. The capital.

Pete’s great-great-grandfather began selling barbecue in Ayden out of the back of a covered wagon sometime in the mid-1800s, and while the barbecue business hasn’t run continuously all that time, his family has been at it a great many years. Illustrative of Pete’s no-nonsense attitude about what it took to become successful was the fact that the place didn’t have any kind of sign for a long time. As word about Pete’s barbecue spread around Ayden, Grifton, Winterville, and Greenville, everyone simply called the place “Pete Jones’s.” And as Pete said pointedly years ago, “A place like this don’t need any sign.”

At Skylight Inn BBQ, you come for a barbecue sandwich on a bun, topped with yellow coleslaw. Or you come for a paper tray of chopped barbecue, a square slab of baked corn bread, and a little dish of slaw. photograph by Travis Dove

Don’t come to The Skylight — now operated by Pete’s son Bruce, his nephew Jeff, and Bruce’s son Samuel — expecting gingham tablecloths and cutesy, little pig cutouts. The décor can perhaps best be described as absent. The Skylight has no menus, and the tables are bare, adorned only with bottles of Texas Pete, pepper vinegar, and toothpicks. You’ll find no waitresses either. If you want to eat at The Skylight, you go up to the counter, order, pay, and carry your food to a table like everybody else, thank you. For a long time, this was probably the only barbecue place in the known world that didn’t have sweet iced tea — or any iced tea. Everything to drink came in a bottle — the sixteen-ounce soft drink variety. When Pete heard the soft drink companies were phasing out bottles, he bought three tractor-trailer loads of bottled Pepsis just so he wouldn’t have to put in a newfangled fountain-drink machine. The place had to go to fountain drinks not long ago. It now has a tea dispenser as well. It may be a mercy that Pete didn’t live to see it, given his antipathy to such “improvements.”

And really, you don’t come to The Skylight to experience change. You come for a barbecue sandwich on a bun, topped with yellow coleslaw. (It was many years before Pete stopped using plain, white loaf bread — light bread — in favor of hamburger-type buns.) Or you come for a paper tray of chopped barbecue, a square slab of baked corn bread, and a little dish of slaw. That’s the way it’s served, too — tray of barbecue on the bottom, sheet of restaurant tissue, piece of corn bread sitting on top of that, more tissue, and the paper container of slaw with a plastic fork stuck into it on top of the stack.

Skylight Inn BBQ
4618 S Lee Street
Ayden, NC 28513
(252) 746-4113

Our State offers thanks to John F. Blair Publisher for allowing us to reprint Bob Garner’s stories of North Carolina’s classic barbecue spots.

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Garner is television personality, restaurant reviewer, speaker, pitmaster and connoisseur of North Carolina barbecue. He is the author of North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time and Bob Garner’s Guide to North Carolina Barbecue.