At The Shed, rising from the ashes

Published 2:15 pm Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Last Wednesday around lunchtime, Brad Orrison was examining a grill filled with smoked sausages near the ruins of The Shed Barbeque & Blues Joint, his destination music venue and rib mecca in Ocean Springs, Miss., when a tractor trailer rumbled in behind him.

“Hello, brother!” he shouted at the driver. By way of explanation, Orrison gestured toward the long black trailer and said, “That’s our kitchen.”

It had been less than four days since Orrison received a dead-of-night wake-up call from a neighbor telling him, “You’re place is on fire, son,” but his staff was already on its second day of post-disaster food service, working from a collection of trailers and mobile smokers to feed the volunteers, well-wishers and drive-by customers who had been descending on The Shed since Feb. 12. That’s the day news broke of an early morning fire that reduced the popular Gulf Coast hangout to a tangle of blackened corrugated tin and charred lumber.

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“I saw it on the Internet,” said Betty Allen, an 84-year-old Pascagoula resident who arrived well before the meat was done smoking on Wednesday, probably out of habit.

“Everybody loves the good food,” she said of The Shed. “If you don’t get here at 10:30 (in the morning), you’d have to stand in line for an hour.”

Allen sat with her husband Davis on the deck of The Rolling Joint, a mini restaurant-on-wheels that Orrison and his crew bring to barbecue competitions like Memphis in May. The mobile kitchen that pulled in earlier will join The Rolling Joint as the most high-tech component of a temporary version of The Shed set to open to the public Friday.

The make-shift outdoor venue was built by volunteers throughout the week from mostly donated materials. The collection of picnic tables and salvaged signs — one reads, appropriately, Catastrophe Bar — along Fort Bayou looks like something out of Gilligan’s Island, complete with a floating stage. Orrison said no live music will be canceled due to the fire.

“We’re going to make sure everybody gets fed at The Shed,” said Orrison. “So many tourists don’t know (about the fire) yet. We don’t have a building, but we still have barbecue, booze and blues.”

A youthful enthusiasm for those three areas of interest is what led Orrison and his sister Brooke Lewis to open The Shed in 2001. Orrison was 24 at the time, Lewis 19, and their business came by its name honestly. The original structure was only 300 square feet, comprised of two lean-tos under a metal sign in the shape of a smiling pig. A rapid expansion began the day eight guys showed up to find only six bar stools. Eager for more room to bend their elbows, the customers offered to build an addition in exchange for free beer and barbecue.

“That was the beginning of 16 expansions in the first 14 months we were open,” said Lewis.

The Shed grew into a 25,000-square-foot regional landmark decorated with enough found objects to stock a flea market, including a marquee from Trent Lott Middle School. When the Ocean Springs Shed celebrated its tenth anniversary last summer with performances by Percy Sledge and Bobby Bland, it was a 1,000 person capacity flagship of a five location chain, with a sixth venue due to open in Baton Rouge this year.

The stage is all that appeared untouched by the fire, the cause of which Orrison said has yet to be determined. His drive to rebuild quickly has been fueled by the outpouring of support by The Shed’s nation-wide network of fans. Much of the generosity implies an unusual affection among “Shed Heads” for the junk-shop charisma of the old space.

By the afternoon of the fire, fans in Atlanta had sent down 500 taxicab license plates — not to mention half of a junked cab— Orrison will use to help recapture The Shed’s old ambiance. On Wednesday, Allen donated a piece of art painted an old frying pan she bought in Texas 65 years ago, along with some ice tongs her father used in the days before refrigeration. A local grocer brought by a metal Barq’s Root Beer sign that had been hanging in his cooler for 59 years.

“This is exactly what people want to see when they come to The Shed,” Orrison said as he held the sign. “This is like when we first opened, when people would build more sections just so they had a place to sit. That’s kind of happening now. I’ve got construction companies calling saying they’ll donate workers to help us rebuild.”

Orrison has other reasons to believe that the fire wouldn’t spell the end of The Shed. On Wednesday, he and Lewis unfolded a salvaged American flag they’d retired after Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge flooded the restaurant and draped it over the charred remains of the original structure. “That flag has now been through two major tragedies,” Orrison said.

The 34 year-old blues fanatic was also able to dig out a door hinge that might be his most prized possession. He obtained it in 2000, while still a student at the University of Mississippi, on the Sunday he showed up to the Chulahoma, Mississippi, juke joint owned by the legendary bluesman Junior Kimbrough, only to discover it had burned down.

“I remember Kinney Kimbrough (Junior’s son) standing there, and he said, ‘All that’s left is this door hinge,’” Orrison recalled. “I was like, ‘Can I have it?’”

Orrison ran his hand over the corroded piece of metal. “Now this has been in two of my favorite juke joints when they burned down,” he said.