Face Behind the Place: Phil Tolliver of Smokehouse 52 BBQ


The Bleu Print is proud to present Face Behind the Place, which features the owners and employees of  different businesses in Chelsea. 

Restaurant owner and businessman Phil Tolliver has recently devoted his life to building his restaurants and brand Smokehouse 52 BBQ, which currently has two locations, Chelsea and Saline.

“I’m at both restaurants every day, whether it’s for five minutes or fifteen hours,” Tolliver said. “I never worked a day in a restaurant before opening this place.”

Tolliver’s first experience with business in Chelsea was his jerky shop just out of town. During his time there he noticed a lack of barbecue in the Chelsea area and looked to fill that void.

“I’ve been smoking meats for a long time, It’s what I’m good at and so the idea of a barbecue restaurant in Chelsea came together very naturally,” Tolliver said. 

Having no previous experience, Tolliver used what he knew about business and applied it to his restaurant. The result was all that he could have hoped for, a restaurant for the community with an atmosphere that brings people together.

“No matter what business you’re doing it has to be something that you care about,” Tolliver said. “If you don’t, employees, customers, everyone else will pick up on that. Especially in restaurants, if the owner doesn’t care then no one else is going to and it really trickles down to affect everyone.”

Tolliver prides himself on the environment created in his restaurant, not only for the customers but for the staff. Part of this is because of the importance placed on teamwork in the restaurant.

“I view these employees as part of my dysfunctional work family,” Tolliver said. “I care about them and they care about me. In a restaurant, things can go off the rails really quickly so you have to believe your employees and they have to believe in you too.”

When he’s not at the restaurant, Tolliver spends time hunting and tending to his farm. He gives credit to his quickness to be bored for all of the business ideas.

“I don’t ever stop moving, I get bored really easily, I can’t sit around at all,” Tolliver said.“When you’re in the woods hunting, sitting 20 feet up in a tree, you have a lot of time for thoughts.”

COVID-19 has affected businesses across the country in various ways and Smokehouse 52 felt the impact at both locations.

“Chelsea stayed open for carrying out the whole time but we shut down Saline quickly,” Tolliver said. “Overnight I went from about 150 employees to ten, it was crazy.”

In the spirit of a true businessman, Tolliver looked for the opportunities created due to the pandemic. For the Chelsea location, this meant hiring more staff to help with the mass amounts of carry-out orders.

“I viewed everything from day one as an opportunity to be creative and just figure it out,” Tolliver said. “I tell my crew that we’re navigating uncharted waters and we’re going to get through it.”

Months later, the restaurant industry is still working to make dining experiences safe for customers. Right now that means adhering to CDC and government regulations and protocols. 

“It basically changed how we do every single thing,” Tolliver commented. “People come and get their temperature taken, we have employee logs, and just make sure that everything goes right.”

The pandemic has not stopped Tolliver’s imagination when it comes to his next business adventure. In fact, plans are in the works for many new things that Tolliver again attributes to his boredness. 

“In the last month, I’ve looked at five different locations for another restaurant,” Tolliver said. “We’re kicking around the idea of developing a “fast-casual” restaurant for the smokehouse and we’re looking at a food truck to buy.”

No one knows what the future will hold, but Tolliver is making plans and designing it the way he wants it.

“For me, the sky’s the limit and I view the only people stopping us as ourselves.”