After 17 years, Phil Dansby is closing the doors to Old Town Keller’s beloved Up-N-Smoke restaurant.
Dansby will retire at the end of January and has sold the property, something many people in the community are beginning to mourn, he said.
“The first word I let out people were like, ‘What am I going to do? I’m going to move away and buy a yacht and sail the world, there’s nowhere else to come to,” Dansby said jokingly.
But he said it was time for a change and he is looking forward to what will happen next. Dansby said he didn’t know what the new owner’s plans are for the property.
The barbecue restaurant was open before Dansby bought it in 1997. Previously, he worked in the hospitality industry at several different Hilton and Sheraton hotels around the country.
Dansby, a Navy veteran, said he and his wife eventually tired of moving from place to place and wanted more stable careers.
He began working at Texas Motor Speedway doing corporate catering, and he and his buddies found it hard to find a good place to grab a beer after work.
Eventually, he bought Up-N-Smoke and made a hangout of his own.
“I’ve seen so many great people come through here,” Dansby said.
Dansby fixed up the restaurant, which at the beginning used to have one room with two draft beers and a television that only played country music.
The previous owners knocked a hole in the wall to expand the facility into two rooms. Dansby eventually added several more craft beers and an indoor and outdoor patio for entertainment.
But when it came to making good barbecue, Dansby said he was lost.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said.
Dansby worked with a buddy from Texas Motor Speedway who helped him learn how to run a successful barbecue kitchen. Eventually, Dansby learned to smoke meats and made his own special barbecue sauce and rub.
As the business got up and running, Dansby began personalizing the place to draw out the community and establish a fun, laid-back atmosphere.
Kerry Rusk has worked as a server at the restaurant since before Dansby became owner, and noted the difference in the way things were run after new ownership.
“Phil made it less of a corporate-run place,” Rusk said.
Rusk said she was not looking forward to the restaurant’s final days. She’s loved her time there, she said.
“This place is a very integral part of Old Town Keller and it’s very sad, but there’s been a big outpouring of love for him, ” Rusk said.
Part of Dansby’s legacy is his active involvement in the lives of the people who visit his restaurant. Dansby said he has hosted everything from weddings to parties to musical events and car and motorcycle shows on his patio for the people he knew and loved.
Dansby said families even started coming to the restaurant for celebrations of life after the death of a loved one, remembering Up-N-Smoke as the place “mom or dad loved to go.”
Stephen Hall, a regular who has eaten lunch at the restaurant for the past 10 years, said he remembers the restaurant being the only one of “real stature” in the community for a long time.
“You talk about certain icons like Up-N-Smoke, everyone knows about it,” Hall said. “Everybody eats here.”
Other customers compare the atmosphere of Up-N-Smoke to the television show “Cheers.”
“You don’t see places like this everywhere, it just brings you in,” regular Ron Henness said. “Everybody really does know your name here.”
Rusk said that would be among the things she will miss the most when the restaurant closes down.
“This is home,” Rusk said.
Dansby said he doesn’t know what he’s going to do when the whole thing is said and done, but he’s excited to figure it out.
With a final look of self-reflection and nostalgia, Dansby remembers his own words years before the restaurant adventure and laughs at how times have changed.
“I remember people came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you open your own restaurant?’” he said. “I said it’s the last thing I’ll ever do, and well, now it really is the last thing I’ll do.”