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  • Tara Crutchfield

Blue Dog Craft Barbecue

Whether you’ve tried his food or drooled over it on Instagram, if you live in Polk County, you’ve heard the name Blue Dog Craft Barbecue. The man behind the meat, Max Miller was born in Michigan but grew up in Polk County. He worked in retail management for about ten years before setting off to make the best damn barbecue around.

“Barbecue came out of left field. It came out of the blue,” Miller said. Max has watched food shows on television for as long as he can remember and followed culinary content online. He came across “barbecue god” Aaron Franklin, owner of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, and leader in Central Texas barbecue. Like kindling to a grill flame, it sparked something in Miller – he had to cook barbecue.

“I remember I instantly called my dad and was like, ‘Let’s cook barbecue.’” His dad, Leroy Miller, was in. With no previous restaurant experience or culinary background, Miller watched videos online and scoured Instagram for inspiration and guidance. “It consumed every bit of my time before we even cooked,” he said.

First thing was first – Miller couldn’t make barbecue without a smoker to cook it on. He commissioned his cousin Patrick Miller, owner of All Pro Mechanical and Fabrication for the task. “He and I pieced it together in his garage,” Miller said. It is an offset style smoker with a 500-gallon propane tank, a popular style on the Texas barbecue scene, said Miller. He and his dad got to work grilling, at first feeding friends and family on days off.

Miller liked the idea of a barbecue pop-up as he thought it would be easier than cook-to-order, though he’s come to find there’s nothing easier about it. There’s a ton of time involved. He cooked any chance he got for the last year of his retail management job. “It came to the time where if I didn’t leave, I’d probably never take off with it,” he said. He started Blue Dog Craft Barbecue officially in January 2019 with the continued help of friends and family, including his mom and dad, girlfriend, Erin, cousin, Brooke, and friend, Vannia.

“We thought the food was good then,” he smiled. “But looking back on old photos – it wasn’t ever bad – but we were honing in and perfecting what we were doing,” he said. Miller used social media as a sort of meat metric. He knew what he liked on Instagram and what he thought was good. He pioneered his own Texas-influenced Blue Dog style by recreating what he saw to fit his taste.

Blue Dog’s Texas-style inspiration comes through in his presentation. Mouthwatering barbecue arranged on butcher paper alongside traditional Southern sides. You eat with your eyes first, as they say, and every plate Blue Dog presents is love at first sight, then bite. The staples are the usual smoky suspects – brisket, ribs, pulled pork, sausage, bbq tacos, and the like, accompanied by down-South classics like potato salad, coleslaw, and baked beans.

From trimming the meat to seasoning it (mostly with salt and pepper), “It’s a lot of prep,” said Miller. His brisket alone cooks for 16 to 18 hours. Blue Dog Craft Barbecue smokes over oak, the most easily accessible wood in the area. Max and his team even cut, dry, and split it themselves.

High-demand has Miller maxing out his grill capacity weekly – a good problem to have, he says. The Blue Dog owner is in the process of building a new grill to double capacity for his expanding brisket fan base.

The inceptive and ongoing concept for Blue Dog is as a popup vendor. Cooking out of the Catapult Kitchen Incubator in Lakeland, Miller has popped up there and all over Polk County, showing up at Swan Brewing, the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market, and Winter Haven Farmers Market, which he attends regularly. “We’ve been farmer’s market-focused,” he said. In addition to markets, Blue Dog offers catering for events large and small.

Miller recently purchased a food truck that is being renovated and will be running shortly. Beyond pop-ups and a food truck, the ultimate goal is to one day have a restaurant location. Though he’s not set on where it would be, Miller envisions an outdoor-oriented spot.

What’s the best thing about running a budding barbecue biz? “All the people we’ve met along the ride,” Miller said. He’s built a solid customer base of folks who return weekly to get their Blue Dog fix. Many regular customers have become friends. “I just love it.”

Blue Dog Craft Barbecue


IG @bluedogcraftbarbecue

Photography by Amy Sexson & Max Miller


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