Last updated on February 22nd, 2021 at 03:12 pm
The owner of longtime barbecue joint Ashley’s Bar-B-Que, on Milwaukee’s northwest side, is opening a second concept on King Drive, with a menu designed to draw a broader range of diners.
The restaurant, dubbed Q, is expected to open next month at 2730 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The 6,000-square-foot building formerly housed Ponderosa Steakhouse, which closed more than a decade ago; the space has sat vacant for almost as long.
Darnell Ashley has run Ashley’s Bar-B-Que on North 15th and West Center Streets for more than 20 years. His father Thomas Ashley Jr. opened the restaurant in the 1960s. The younger Ashley has won awards for his smoked barbecue in recent years using the original family recipe. He said he takes a lot of pride in the restaurant’s reputation for scratch cooking.
Darnell Ashley said his new restaurant won’t focus as heavily on smoked meats, but more on comfort food, “that everybody would want, at a place that everybody wouldn’t mind going to.” The menu will include grilled chicken, grilled pork chops and seafood, as well as pasta dishes and sides like mac and cheese and greens.
“If you don’t like shrimp Alfredo… you can get chicken Alfredo,” he said. “If you don’t want any pasta at all, we have pulled pork, beef brisket. So, many more options this go-around.”
The idea for a comfort food-focused restaurant came out of the five years he operated a second barbecue concept, Ashley’s Que in Walker’s Point. The business did well, and its social buffet on Sundays was known to attract a diverse group of diners.
Due to the time-consuming barbecue process, said Ashley, it eventually became too difficult to run two successful locations. He closed the business in 2017, following a fire and lease expiration. Ashley said his biggest downfall during that time was trying to do it all.
That’s why, as he embarks on another opening, he hired Tina Wesley as general manager to run Q’s front-of-house operations. Her most recent hospitality experience includes Milwaukee-based F Street Group and The Iron Horse Hotel in Walker’s Point.
Like most local restaurants, Ashley’s Bar-B-Que has struggled financially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it’s helped that carryout orders had already made up a good amount of its business.
Ashley sees the current climate as both “really bad and really good” for opening a new restaurant. One one hand, it was an especially heavy investment to renovate the entire King Drive building and Q will open under COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the City of Milwaukee. But on the other hand, “people are so tired of being in,” he said.
At full capacity, the restaurant’s dining room seats more than 100 people, but some tables and chairs have been removed to keep diners socially distant. Q will offer curbside service and plans to contract a third party delivery service.
Before finding the former Ponderosa site, Ashley had searched for real estate in the Milwaukee area for about year and a half, he said. A man of faith, he believes God led him to the Harambee neighborhood location and ultimately guided his pursuit of opening Q amid the challenges of COVID-19.
“I’ve been really scared … but I keep getting whispers, I think it’s from the man above, that this was always my dream,” he said.
Part of that dream is operating restaurants that are welcoming to all.
“What I love about my restaurant is it’s a melting pot of people,” said Ashley. “I’ve always said if did (another restaurant) I don’t want to just see black people there. I want us all to be comfortable about where we’re at, to be able to sit down and eat and have a good time.”
After getting licensing approval from the city earlier this week, Q will be up and running in about a month, said Ashley. Next steps include hiring employees, menu tastings, dry runs and a soft opening, in preparation for the real thing. Throughout his decades-long career, he’s seen his fair share of disappointing grand openings, so for this one, he said he’s determined to “nail everything the first time.”