“Every day that I get up, I love coming here,” said Tess Thomas, owner of Emma’s BBQ. “I told my husband, ‘I love it so much, I could sleep here and wake up the next day, and be ready to go to Emma’s.’ That’s how much this little place means to me.”
Emma’s BBQ is a charming Southern barbecue restaurant in Seattle’s Hillman City neighborhood. It’s Tess’s love letter to her mother, Emma Thomas.
“I started Emma’s BBQ because of my mother,” Tess said. “[Cooking] was a passion for her. She did not read or write, but she could smell things and know exactly what to put in it. She would do things and add her own twist to it.”
Melt-in-your-mouth brisket, sweet cornbread, pulled pork sandwiches smothered in sweet, spicy, and tangy barbecue sauce are just some of the mouth-wateringly good dishes you’ll find at the Hillman City restaurant. The recipes Tess uses at her restaurant aren’t all Emma’s, but just like her mom, Tess and her family have put her own spin on classic Southern dishes.
Long before Emma’s BBQ opened in Hillman City, Emma herself opened and ran the restaurant in Bremerton in 1986. Then in 2016, Tess opened Emma’s BBQ in Hillman City as a continuation of her mother’s restaurant when her niece found a space located a few miles from Tess’s house. And she’s been running Emma’s BBQ with the help of her family ever since.
Tess’s ultimate goal for Emma’s BBQ is to leave a lasting legacy of Emma’s love, kindness, and cooking.
“She never turned anyone away from her table,” Tess said. “She’d sit out on her porch, and if people came by and they even acted like they were hungry, she would feed them.”
Tess also opened Emma’s BBQ with the mindset that it would be something that could be passed down within her family for generations to come and be an example of success in her community.
“I am merely trying to build something that future generations can see and know that if this 72-year-old woman can get up and make full days, I can do something with the talents I have,” Tess said.
Tess is a long-time resident of Hillman City, but her family is originally from Arkansas where her mom taught her how to cook at 12 years old.
“12 years old, I was in the kitchen, and at 12 years old I could cook cornbread and could cook full meals just to be able to help my mom out,” Tess said.
Growing up, Tess’s father worked in the shipyards while her mom took care of the family and tended to her bountiful garden where she grew flowers and vegetables. At the end of each day, Tess helped her mom prepare dinner in time for her father to come home. Her father was a vegetarian, so she grew up learning how to cook both vegetarian and meat dishes, which is why you’ll find delicious vegetarian options on the menu, like their collard greens and baked mac and cheese.
The flavors at Emma’s BBQ are notably distinct — they’re reminiscent of both Memphis and Arkansas-style barbecue, but has its own unique twist that Tess calls Emma’s style barbecue.
“And it is truly Emma’s style,” Tess said. “Nowhere have I gone that I’ve found something that tastes like it, which is why I know it’s something that is very unique.”
As for what Emma does that makes her barbecue so special, Tess said Emma kept her recipes very near and dear to her heart. Unless she really knew you and taught you how to make something herself, you’d never know what goes into her dishes.
Tess’s nieces and nephews, who help run Emma’s, picked up different recipes from Emma, like the chicken recipe, and added their own twists to it. One of Tess’ nephews has even won awards for his barbecue that he cooks based on Emma’s recipes.
When the pandemic began in March 2020, Tess shared how grateful she was for the way that the Hillman City community embraced her and Emma’s BBQ. She couldn’t afford PPE and didn’t have access to the loans other businesses could afford. She had to rely solely on her community to pull together and help her. And they did.
“The real hero of Emma’s is this community,” Tess said.
Community is incredibly important to Tess. It’s important for her to bring visibility as a small Black-owned business that’s not just good but great. She strives to give service as good as her barbecue and treats everyone who walks through her doors as she would her best friend.
“So, that’s the legacy of Emma and carrying that on,” Tess said. “And every aspect of this restaurant is almost as if through divine inspiration, she was right there with me telling me, ‘Do it this way. Do this, do this.’ And it all came together.”