Former Sun Devil Football Star Tackles Barbecue Business
Published: Sunday, February 5, 2012
Updated: Monday, February 6, 2012 15:02
The news article with a photo of no. 84 in his ASU football gear features prominently on the wall of Big Bellys BBQ in Tempe, cluing patrons in to chef-owner Bryan Proby's athletic past. Before perfecting his beef brisket sandwich, the 6-foot-5 Proby made a career of sandwiching quarterbacks, playing defensive end for the Sun Devils from 1993 to 1994 and then for the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs.
Plenty of athletes take up different pursuits after their playing days are through, often some fun hobby or amateur interest to occupy their time. But this isn't Charles Barkley golfing or Jesse Palmer "Bachelor"-ing. Proby is serious about his barbecue, and Big Bellys (1323 W. University Drive, Tempe) is a bona fide barbecue joint.
From traditional favorites like ribs and brisket, to more unorthodox dishes like barbecue spaghetti and a barbecue sundae (an unholy but intriguing concoction layered with meat, baked beans, coleslaw and barbecue sauce), Proby adds his personal twist to everything he serves.
"If I don't get my hands on it, it ain't right," he said, chuckling. "That's what I told quarterbacks, too."
Another of his interesting creations, the loaded baked potato, features a potato topped with a mess of barbecue meat, beans, cheese, and slaw. But this meal comes with a warning.
"If you don't finish it in here, you go on the wall of shame," Proby said. "We take your picture and put it up, and you can't order the potato again for ninety days."
Starting up a barbecue restaurant might seem like a bit of a departure from playing professional football, but Proby sees a lot in common between the two.
"That's practice and performance," he said, pointing at the last juicy morsels of my pulled pork sandwich. "With football, it's the same thing. You practice, practice, practice, and you have to keep at it to be good."
Though it would be natural to assume his time in Kansas Citydetermined his barbecue philosophy, Proby said that while K.C. influenced his decision to go into business and "enhanced" his recipe, he has his own unique way of preparing the food.
"A lot of people ask me what style it is," he said. "It's Big Belly style."
His barbecue background started with family cookouts growing up in Los Angeles, and Big Bellys has the same relaxed, unhurried vibe of a backyard gathering. Proby chats with his customers, joking around or regaling them with tales of his playing days. He is there whenever the restaurant is open, but the rest of the three to four family members and friends who help him go in and out at their leisure.
"It's really just whoever wants to show up," Proby said, laughing.
He began Big Bellys as a "mobile operation," doing catering and setting up a stand at various events. In 2010, he moved into more permanent digs at the restaurant's current location on Priest and University in Tempe. He still does catering, and during football season, Big Bellys can be found inside Sun Devil Stadium.
Proby said he hopes to expand in the future, but for now he's seeing how the joint does in the cozy corner space it currently occupies. With a small business, he's operating on "kind of one five-year plan at a time." But no matter how big Big Bellys gets, Proby will carry the same passionate approach that once brought him success on the gridiron and now directs his efforts as a business owner and chef.
"It's all about finding your calling," he said. "[Football] was my calling then, this is my calling now."