Today is the tenth birthday for downtown Little Rock barbecue restaurant Capitol Smokehouse. Candy Wilkerson, who owns the small, lunch-only joint, is celebrating by giving free lunch to several lucky fans. While this would ordinarily be little more than an aside mention, this particular milestone is impressive when you think how close Wilkerson was to selling the restaurant after the death of her husband and co-owner, Doug Wilkerson.
Candy and Doug were in the restaurant business well before Little Rock’s food scene developed into what it is today. The Wilkersons owned Lucky 7 on 6th Street from 1987 until 1998, selling plate lunches, burgers and sandwiches to the downtown crowd. They sold Lucky 7 to work in food service for Little Rock private schools. When their children were out of high school, the Wilkersons were ready to get back to running a restaurant, and found the owners of Mason’s BBQ ready to sell … with one caveat.
“We had never been in the barbecue business,” said Candy. “We just wanted to buy the property, we didn’t want any recipes, we just wanted to do our plate lunch. But they wouldn’t sell it to use without that, so we got in the barbecue business.”
The Wilkersons caught on pretty quickly, with Capitol Smokehouse’s barbecue earning accolades in area publications over the years. But even though it is a barbecue restaurant, it’s the plate lunches at Capitol Smokehouse that are most popular. Candy says the meatloaf is her number one seller, and the squash casserole and jalapeno cornbread aren’t far behind.
“Most of my recipes are my mother’s,” said Wilkerson. “The squash casserole was one of our Sunday side dishes that my mom fixed after church with pot roast or meat loaf.”
Everything changed in the summer of 2016, when Doug started feeling ill with a sickness that he just couldn’t seem to shake.
“We thought he had the flu,” said Wilkerson. “After he had been at home for a week self-medicating, I finally got him to go to the doctor, and his blood work came back crazy out of whack. His doctor referred him out to a specialist because his kidney and liver numbers were off. It turns out he was in organ failure, and we had no idea.
“When he was nine years old, he had something they called intestinal flu, and they likely gave him a transfusion. And he had an undiagnosed case of hepatitis C. I thought there was no way, he was nine years old. But they told us it can lay dormant for years. And it’s totally curable if it’s caught early. But it wasn’t.”
Doug Wilkerson died July 1, 2016. Candy’s family and employees rallied to run the restaurant for a couple of months while she mourned. And while she considered letting Capitol Smokehouse go, it was the restaurant’s biggest fans that kept her in it.
“I have the best customers in town,” said Wilkerson with a tear and a smile. “They have stepped up and supported me, they stayed loyal. A lot of people thought I closed after Doug died. I won’t say it’s been easy, being an independently owned business it tough anyway.”
Wilkerson sniffed, then smiled and chuckled.
“But you can’t go to a chain and get my meatloaf and squash casserole.”
To thank her supporters, Wilkerson is giving ten people free lunch every month for a year. To enter to win, just go to Capitol Smokehouse this week and put your name in the jar at the front of the restaurant. Wilkerson will draw the winners on April 30.
“It’s just my way to thank my amazing customers for their support and loyalty. I couldn’t do it without them.”