For two Pennsylvania natives, bringing authentic Texas-style barbecue to State College has been a journey more than twenty years in the making.
Jay and Paula Rhodes opened up Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in August, and it quickly became popular for it’s “lip-smackin’, rib-ticklin’, knee-slappin’, foot-stompin’, great tastin’ barbecue.” A Dallas staple since 1941, Dickey’s boasts more than 280 locations in 43 states, including the Bryce Jordan Center. Back in December the couple established the first sit-down concession stand in the arena’s history.
But before bringing a taste of Texas to central Pennsylvania, the pair of Penn State graduates experienced a remarkable set of events that led them back to State College.
In 1993, Jay was a student studying sociology, philosophy, and world religion at Penn State. While spending a day in Phillipsburg, Pa., he was involved in an accident that nearly ended his life.
On September 8, 1993, a motorcycle approached a turn too fast, causing the bike to hit gravel and a stone wall. The now driverless vehicle careened toward the sidewalk, where it collided with the 22-year-old Jay Rhodes.
Rhodes’ diaphragm was ripped in three places; the main vein that travels to the heart, the vena ceva, exploded; and the right side of his liver was lost. His gall bladder was torn in half. It would take more than 10,000 stitches to sew the lower left side of his body back together.
Rhodes received more than 300 pints of blood and went into cardiac arrest 11 times. He was in a coma for 30 days.
“Life is extremely fragile,” says Rhodes, reflecting on that life-changing day more than 20 years later. “Life is a vapor that can blow away with the slightest breeze.”
But the accident did not dampen his resolve. In fact, the lessons he learned from surviving such a horrific experience have shaped how he lives, especially now, in his first year as a business owner.
“At the same time, life can be extremely resilient,” he says. “You can endure, and survive some of the most awful tragedies.
“Sometimes, I feel I can conquer everything.”
Following the accident, a student by the name of Paula Hess read about Jay’s life-threatening injuries in the school newspaper, and immediately began to pray for a swift recovery. She didn’t know who he was, but she knew he was suffering and desperately wanted to see him back on his feet.
More than a year and a half later, while waiting for a few friends inside the Eisenhower Chapel, a young man came up to Paula and introduced himself. She quickly realized the student she was talking to was the one she prayed for — a chance meeting that’s shaped their lives ever since. They began dating soon after and have been married for 22 years.
“She’s awesome,” Rhodes said of his wife, who helps run the restaurant. “She’s an absolute gift. Everyone that meets her and knows her say she is extremely gracious and memorable.”
After graduation, Jay went into the ministry, and he and Paula began working at megachurches in Dallas and across the Midwest. It was in Dallas where they learned the true taste of Texas barbecue, which inspired them to move back to State College and open a barbecue joint.
Rhodes, originally from Williamsport, Pa., made a call to Dickey’s headquarters and was granted permission to open up a franchise in State College.
With business booming, the couple opened up a concession in the Bryce Jordan Center, the home of dozens of concerts, events, and Penn State men’s and women’s basketball games throughout the year. According to Rhodes, he and his wife plan on opening a stand outside the BJC to sell barbecue next fall during home football games.
“We’re learning a lot,” says Rhodes of the experience of expanding locations. “It’s going to be a learning process, and it’s going to get better, and better, and better.”
In three months, Rhodes said the restaurant is planning on rolling out home delivery, allowing residents to have fresh barbecue delivered right to your door. In six months he expects to open up another full-time location.
“No matter where you go,” says Rhodes, “authentic, real barbecue is the taste preferred of any area.”
While State College may not be as barbecue-savvy as Texas, Rhodes believes that people recognize good food and flock to it.
“People might not understand what a brisket or pork butt is,” he says. “But one thing is for certain – if it’s prepared authentically, it will taste good.”