Moonlite Bar-B-Cue is an institution in Owensboro, and in Kentucky for that matter. Family run from the time it opened in the 1940s, Moonlite is currently run by the third generation of the Bosley Family. Their grandfather, Hugh “Pappy” Bosley and his wife Catherine bought the small 30 seat restaurant in 1963, and there’s been a Bosley there running the place ever since. Today, the restaurant seats 350 people and they have a catering business which can serve up to 15,000. 350,000 people eat at Moonlite each year, and they have even had a few celebrities pop in over the years. William Shatner, Reba McIntyre, Kevin Costner, Bill Clinton and Al Gore have all eaten at Moonlite Bar-B-Q. Quite frankly, anywhere that has served both Shatner and Clinton must have good food.
I actually ate at Moonlite twice during my stay in Owensboro. It was so good the first time that I just had to go back for seconds. They are famous for their mutton barbecue and are actually the largest user of mutton in the country, serving between six and ten thousand pounds of mutton every WEEK. Their other specialty is a steaming pot of burgoo, another traditional Kentucky dish similar in many ways to Brunswick stew. Their buffet is also full of wonderful side dishes each of which tastes like it came out of your grandmother’s kitchen. On my first visit, I was the very last person in the restaurant, and the buffet items were all still fresh and delicious. And their pies - their pies were to die for.
I also had the good fortune of having a nice long chat with Pat Bosley, one of the current owners and the grandson of Pappy and Catherine Bosley. He practically grew up at Moonlite, doing every job from cooking to waiting tables to running the cash register. When he went off to college in Colorado, he had no intention of carrying on the family tradition, but one thing led to another and there he is. Now as his son is ready to head off to college himself, Pat just smiles and says ‘you never know’.
In my many years in the restaurant industry, I only worked for an owner/manager once, and it really made a difference. I worked at that restaurant for three years and loved it. Pat reminded me a lot of those days as he told me that he hadn’t hired a new waitress in over 2 years. He tried to hire people who would be around for a few years and be a part of the family. People might leave for a higher paycheck elsewhere and then come back saying it wasn’t worth it. Pat kept stressing quality to me - quality of ingredients, quality of preparation and quality of staff. He also stressed family and said Moonlite wouldn’t be Moonlite without family.
It was inspirational listening to Pat as he pointed out the many accolades that Moonlite has received over the years and pictures of the famous people who have eaten there. He was beaming when he showed me Pappy’s menu on the wall with 30 cent beers and 40 cent mutton sandwiches. He showed me a picture of a show they had helped put on with Merle Haggard and told me how they had gotten top billing over Merle. Pat was proud to take me back in the kitchen and show me their beautiful custom built smoker. The mutton for the next day was already on, as it takes them fifteen hours to slow smoke it. A pile of hickory wood was neatly stacked against the wall, and the overnight cook was slowly feeding it into the pit.
Pat told me about Family Night, one of his ideas, which lets kids eat free on Monday night. He understands that it’s difficult and expensive to raise kids, he’s been there, and what a deal like that can mean to some families. He wants Moonlite to be a part of the community and something that every kid growing up in Owensboro will remember fondly. That, after all, is what keeps them coming back year after year and generation after generation.
Just as we were having that conversation an older gentleman pulled up in his mini-van. He said he knew he was late but he always tried to stop and get some sandwiches when he was passing through town. Despite having been closed for half an hour, Pat hustled him right into the restaurant and whipped him up a couple of sandwiches for the road. That is the difference between a manager and an owner and between a restaurant and an institution. That old fella was so happy with his sandwiches that I’ll bet he will tell everyone he knows about getting them after closing time.
I was interested in how mutton has become such an iconic western Kentucky dish while it has all but died in most of the rest of the country. Pat told me two things had happened. First, cotton and synthetic fabrics had almost completely replaced wool, bringing the number of sheep in the country way down. Second, soldiers in World War II had been fed really low grade mutton for years which had turned them off to it forever. Since the Greatest Generation wasn’t feeding it to the Baby Boomers, it pretty much disappeared from our national culinary culture. This is a story echoed by my mother who said my grandfather would never eat mutton after returning from the war. Mutton had remained relevant in Owensboro largely due to church picnics which kept on with their same tradition of mutton roasts year after year. After enough time had passed, the mutton stigma disappeared and they continue serving and eating it today. I have always liked mutton, but it is definitely hard to find. I can usually get some on the Navajo Reservation when I’m out that way, but can’t think of another instance in my travels in the U.S. where I’ve come across it.
In the near future, Pat has been asked to speak on a panel called “Innovating to Stay the Same”. This sounds like an interesting topic, but I wasn’t really sure what it meant. He went on to tell me that if he wants to maintain consistency, which is the true centerpiece of his business, he often finds himself in a jam. As companies go out of business and certain items like his must-have brand of Worcestershire Sauce become unavailable, he needs to find ways to maintain the same taste - which takes innovation. Another example he gave was a certain type of egg stiffener used to make really fluffy meringues. When the brand he used went out of business, they had to find a new way to get what they needed. Now they are manufacturing this product themselves and selling it to other restaurants. While innovation is usually about moving forward, in Pat’s case it’s more about finding a way to keep things the way they’ve always been.
With the restaurant closed and a belly full of good country cooking, it was time to lock the doors and head home. I had a great time talking with Pat and hearing stories about Moonlite Bar-B-Que over the years. The food is fantastic, and really gets the “country cooking” idea right. I am already looking forward to my next visit to Owensboro, and I’m sure I’ll make a beeline for Moonlite Bar-B-Q. I know it’ll be there.