SCOTIA — For Melissa Brown, food is love. And that message can be heard loud and clear at Backyard BBQ, the Scotia-based barbecue restaurant she runs alongside her husband Mac.
Providing good food is, of course, a top priority for the Browns. But as the dynamic duo tries to revive their restaurant after a series of devastations, it has become obvious that their business brings more to the table than a hearty plate of slow-cooked meat and savory side dishes — they also bring the spirit of community.
“Our restaurant — yes, we do barbecue, but it’s more than that,” said Melissa. “We’re gonna treat you like you’re our family and everything is gonna be done with excellence, everything that we do.”
The Browns opened Backyard BBQ on Scotia’s Mohawk Avenue in 2019, but the restaurant’s story began a couple of years prior. Mac had grown up in Kingston, surrounded by a family that loved to cook and bake, and this passion persisted within him as he got older, though he never truly considered opening a restaurant.
It was not until 2017, when he was laid off from Ethan Allen after 18 years of work — not to mention the countless remarks by friends and family that he should sell his food — that he decided to give a barbecue restaurant a shot.
“When he lost his job… he couldn’t find another job because no one wanted to pay him because he had been there for so long,” Melissa said. “So I said, ‘you’ve always loved cooking, and you always said you wanted to do your own barbecue business, so why don’t we just do that?’”
They finally opened their doors at the Via/Port Rotterdam mall in 2018, but realized the spot was not what they were looking for. Mac wanted a brick-and-mortar, and in 2019, after two weeks of searching, Backyard BBQ found its new home in Scotia.
The business grew quickly and, soon, the Browns were selling out of their signature brisket and ribs during the weekends.
But then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Like many other restaurants in March 2020, Backyard BBQ was forced to shutter its doors and offer delivery-only services. Although Melissa worked long hours as a nurse during the pandemic, the income the couple lost as a result of closing the restaurant made paying monthly expenses difficult.
“When restaurants shut down, you still have to pay your rent, you still have to pay your insurance, you can’t lapse it — everything has to continue to be paid while you’re not open,” said Melissa. “We used all of our savings, actually, to keep our restaurant through COVID.”
Eventually and slowly, the pandemic began to ease. Other restaurants reluctantly began to reopen in the first months of 2021, and in February the Browns started planning their next steps.
Due to ongoing restrictions and the pace of business prior to the pandemic, the Browns decided that their best option going forward would be to continue the catering services they offered prior to the pandemic and to participate in local farmers markets. They found their place at the Schenectady Farmers Market and Delmar’s Feura Bush Farmers Market, both of which were slated to open in May.
But the Browns were hit by another setback before they were able to make their return. In the midst of the pandemic, the couple packed all of their outdoor equipment — grills, tables, and other necessities for outdoor events — into a storage unit in Rotterdam. But on April 6, 2021, approximately a month before their farmers market appearances, the storage building, including the Browns’ unit, burned to the ground. They suffered a total loss.
“We lost everything,” said Melissa. “We’re like, ‘what are we going to do? Are we going to just call in the day?’ Are we going to say, ‘you know what, we’re gonna move on from this, it’s too much,’ or are we going to say, ‘You know what, let’s take what we have?’”
The couple decided on the latter.
“We didn’t let it keep us back,” said Melissa. “We just said, ‘You know what, we’re gonna just figure it out from here. We’re gonna figure it out because we know this is what we’re supposed to do.’”
To get back on their feet, the Browns purchased a couple of grills, pop-up tents, and anything else they absolutely needed and went on to participate in the two farmers markets in Schenectady and Delmar. Since then, they have also catered at a variety of events, including fundraisers, graduation parties, and a night at the Saratoga Casino Hotel.
The Browns have a motto: “faith, family, barbecue,” and it was those first two components that kept pushing them forward despite the devastation of both the pandemic and the storage unit fire.
“If we didn’t have faith, we would have gave up when all of our equipment went up in smoke at that fire,” said Mac.
While faith, for them, was the greatest incentive in trekking on, they also say the role of family cannot be understated. Melissa and Mac run the restaurant as a married couple, but they also have two children, both of whom help out when they can. Their 19-year-old son, Darius, can often be found with them at the Schenectady farmers market.
“He actually does help out here sometimes with cooking different things, salads, and he likes to help on the grill as well,” said Melissa.
But at Backyard BBQ, family can be found in more than the husband and wife that run the restaurant or the son standing next to his dad at the grill. The Browns also build a family with their clients when they cook for them.
“It’s gonna be like you’re our family member,” said Melissa. “Say it’s a college graduation — it’s gonna be like that’s our child graduating and we want it to be the best day ever for them.”
Because family is one of the most important life aspects to the Browns, they also ensure that those outside of the restaurant clientele can feel that familial warmth, especially because many lost their family connections during the pandemic. For the past couple of years, the Browns cooked up turkey dinners on Thanksgiving and handed them out to the people who were unable to be with their families that day — bus drivers, Stewart’s Shops workers, homeless people.
“We come in, we just make as many turkey dinners as we can and we just drive throughout the community and just hand them out to people,” said Mac. “We should bring food to other people that can’t afford it or are not able to be with family on those days, so that was our way of giving back to the community and the people that don’t have family — at least they have some feeling of Thanksgiving.”
By sharing this family spirit, the Browns hope to highlight the importance of community and encourage others to give back in the same way.
“Just getting back to the golden rule of loving your neighbor,” said Melissa. “We do want to show people and demonstrate to people community — that’s how it should be.”
The Browns have always been involved with youth activities. Their children were involved with school sports, Mac was a football coach, and Melissa was a commissioner. Now, one of the biggest ways the Browns try to support the community is through fundraising and catering for youth sports events, even when it typically comes with some loss of income.
“Even though it’s difficult and it’s a hardship for us to do fundraising because you’re giving away some of your profits, at the end of the day it’s worth it,” said Melissa. “It’s worth doing it because those children are doing an activity where they’re building their characters, they’re learning how to work with others, they’re learning many different things.”
More recently, the Backyard BBQ catered for a couple of Tartan Youth Lacrosse tournaments in Scotia-Glenville. According to Rick Frederick, the president of Tartan Youth Lacrosse who asked the Browns to cater for the games, their enthusiasm to help out was undeniable.
“When I first brought them the idea of coming to the lacrosse tournaments, they didn’t hesitate, they were definitely on board; they definitely were excited to be out there in the community and make sure everybody was fed,” said Frederick. “I’ve seen them at local youth football games and same thing — very positive vibe, and they’ve even made a donation to the youth leagues.”
The Browns hope to expand their business enough to begin hiring other people in the near future. But in the meantime, Mac and Melissa will continue to run the show by themselves and use their food as a way to support and inspire the surrounding community.
“You know what, we’re in this community, we’re in Scotia, we’re here for a purpose, we’re gonna support them the way that we can support them,” said Melissa. “So for us, that’s how we can support them: it’s by going out and selling the food.”