Talking Shop with David Knight, president of Ole Hickory Pits and partner in Dream Big LLC

Monday, January 3, 2011
David Knight is the president and founder of Ole Hickory Pits in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

Cape Girardeau businessman David Knight is half of Dream Big LLC, the company that brought Isle of Capri to Cape Girardeau and owned much of the property that makes up the new casino site. Before courting a casino, he got his start in the barbecue business by first opening Port Cape Girardeau and later translating his barbecue know-how into barbecue oven manufacturer Ole Hickory Pits. Throughout his career, he's been committed to revitalizing downtown Cape Girardeau.

Question: After growing up in Poplar Bluff, Mo., what brought you to Cape Girardeau?

Answer: I got my undergraduate degree and MBA from Arkansas State University. I taught marketing and management at Jacksonville State University, and then decided I wanted to try the real world. I came back to my roots in Southeast Missouri and Cape Girardeau was then, as it is now, the hub of the area. I started looking for business opportunities and entered a joint venture with my sister, Mary, and her husband at that time, Larry Foot. We opened Port Cape Girardeau Restaurant in 1974. We started that from scratch. That building had been abandoned for 12 years. At that time the building was 136 years old. It had a colorful history. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had an office there during the Civil War, there was bootleg whiskey, there were all these colorful stories and beautiful arch windows. It just broke my heart to see this thing deteriorating. They were even considering tearing it down. We completely renovated the building and opened in December of '74. I sold my interest in it to Doc Cain back around 1988.

Q: When deciding to invest in a restaurant, why did you want to open a barbecue restaurant?

A: My best friend growing up was Dale Pruitt in Poplar Bluff, who had Pruitt's Barbecue. It was right by the old high school and world famous for its barbecues, cheeseburgers and milk shakes. Dale is still at Port Cape Girardeau. When we were children we would make a little hideout behind the barbecue place where the wood was stacked. That's how I got interested in barbecue.

Q: What inspired you to start Ole Hickory Pits?

A: This business is a spin off of Port Cape Girardeau. When we opened the restaurant there was no modern technology. We had a brick pit, and we'd build a fire down in the bottom. We had a manual damper to control the temperature. This was a particular challenge because it was inside a three-story historic building. We tried to build it as safe as we could, but the flue had to go up three stories. The third time firetrucks came to put the pit out we decided there had to be a better way. We migrated into manufacturing barbecue ovens. Because other people were having the same kind of problem around the country. We started selling barbecue ovens in the late 1970s.

Q: What sets your barbecue ovens made at Ole Hickory Pits apart from others?

A: I wanted to resolve the fire safety issue. That was frightening, to see 600 pounds of pork on fire. That is a very frightening thing to see. Beyond that, to be able to control the temperature in a very low temperature range. Barbecue is all about low and slow. It makes the meat much more tender and also is more likely to all be finished at the same time. It's predictable. Our first customers were restaurants. Once they found not only did they not have a fire problem, but it cooked very efficiently, that was a big plus. It reduced the shrink factor, and in the restaurant business when you are selling meat by the pound, the more pounds you have at the end of the cooking, the more profitable it is. It's not all burned up, or some of it's raw, some of it's not. We sold to restaurants, caterers and competition cookers. The smaller sizes are a fairly recent thing, for a backyard and light commercial use. We still go in both directions, bigger and smaller. We have 20 models. We just did one not too long about that would hold 6,000 pounds of meat. We can do as small as 40 pounds. Most are stainless steel. We do them in black or red. We've even done one in camouflage.

Q: When did you start to acquire more property north of downtown Cape Girardeau?

A: We started building them where [Red Letter Communications] is now. We got to building bigger and bigger pits, and we'd have to roll them down the sidewalk. To make the turn and have to roll them down the sidewalk was a pretty daunting task. Then I acquired the property where we're at now. About that time Boyd Gaming came to town, and they were looking for a site for a casino. I sold them that [manufacturing] building and the property behind it. When they left, Jim Riley bought it. For years we both had basically the Boyd site in our hands, but never really put it together. We were friends and acquaintances, but not partners. One day had on of those aha moments. A guy came to town wanting to build a hotel and saying "Why is there not one overlooking the river?" I said, "Well, that's a good question, but a better question is why isn't there a casino." I called Jim and said, "Hey, let's talk. You've got property, I've got property." We met and that was the beginning of Dream Big. That was three-and-a-half years ago.

Q: When you started working together, there was an unlimited amount of casino licenses in Missouri. How did you react to the number of licenses being capped at 13?

A: We spent about a year putting things together. We were ready to make our application to the gaming commission on a Wednesday and got a call the preceding week that we have a special meeting on Monday. We went to Jefferson City and the special meeting was to impose a moratorium on new licenses. Our first reaction was disbelief. We were demoralized. How could this be? I knew that maybe not in my lifetime, but there would be a casino in Cape Girardeau. I viewed this as a temporary stumbling block. With the ebb and flow of politics, I knew the moratorium could be reversed. It remained dormant for a while, and we were looking at different options. All of the sudden in the spring of this year, we got our heads back together and started looking for a casino partner.

Q: What made the difference in making your "big dream" become a reality this time?

A: As luck would have it, we connected with Isle of Capri and that match right there made our dream come true. They were the perfect, perfect, perfect fit for Cape Girardeau for a lot of reasons. They are a Midwest company. They're not based in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, N.J. They specialize in markets our size. They are located in Missouri, so this is now hometown folks that we're partnering up with. Their management team were our kind of folks. When Jim and I insisted we want local people involved in this development, they got it. They understand.

Q: What will this casino development mean to the future of Cape Girardeau?

A: It has so much potential because No. 1, the river. No. 2, the heritage that goes along with the river. A culture is measured a lot by its architecture. The downtown and Broadway area are a diamond in the rough. To think here's this Mississippi River, the father of all waters going back to the Native Americans and all that. Unfortunately, the view of that and the merchantability of that are blocked by the floodwall. That has been a challenge all these years, in my opinion. How do you translate that into something that is commercially adaptable? To do that you've got to have chutzpah. You've got to have wherewithal. You have to have something of size to generate traffic, provide initial upfront investment and create jobs. This is not just about a casino. This is about a new vision for the Cape Girardeau riverfront. This is about the transformation of the trajectory of downtown.

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