Smoke lets you know.
It’s a familiar sight to those past Roy’s Grille, the little restaurant tucked away in a modest Exxon gas station along West Main Street in Lexington. There is often a large black grill in the parking lot, smoke rising from its stack, which is a telltale sign that something good is cooking, low and slow.
Chris Williams, owner and chef Roy, has a name for this smoke.
“I call it a pat signal,” he says with a laugh, noting that smoke from that grill has a way of attracting customers.
Williams has attracted more than just the attention of hungry customers lately. He has also received acclaim from the highest positions in the state government.
On January 6, Williams was one of three people recognized by Governor Henry McMaster as South Carolina’s Chef Ambassadors for 2022. This marks the eighth year of the program, and the state’s chef ambassadors are invited to represent South Carolina at food festivals, media events and other forums. It’s an effort aimed at boosting agribusiness and tourism, two of the Palmetto State’s leading industries that generate billions of dollars each year.
The 38-year-old Williams, who has been in restaurants since he was a teenager, opened Roy’s Grille in Exxon Station at 711 West Main St. in Lexington in 2014. The business is named after his grandfather, Roy Carter, who died in 2013. Williams also runs a catering company called William Christopher’s.
Williams said he is delighted to be one of South Carolina’s 2022 Chefs Ambassadors.
“It’s an honor for me,” said Williams, a native of Ullar Township. “Being a black man from where I come from, such a small rural town, is such an honor. I stand on the shoulders of my grandparents and the people who came before me who allowed me to have this opportunity. I succeeded because they did it.”
“I am proud to be able to carry the torch. Not the torch of work, but the torch wanting more, go out on your own and get it. Being an ambassador for chefs, you really put the crown on it.”
While chatting with a reporter from The State one morning in Roy’s cramped kitchen, Williams was a whirlwind of effective action and practice. Chop the potatoes, onions and peppers. He would whisk and fry eggs, cook onion sausages and bolognese, and toast bread for sandwiches on a flat grill, all while taking phone calls, turning on the cash register and preparing for the next brunch. And he did it all while never breaking out in the interview. I sensed that Williams could literally run Roy’s kitchen with his eyes closed.
“We’re cooking, brother,” said Williams, who currently only has one employee at Ruiz. “The misconception is that this is gas station food. No, this is a restaurant at a gas station. … There is a perception of[being inside a gas station]and I understand that. But that’s what I could tolerate when I started, and it fed my family. I eat The food is from here. We do it all.”
Regular customers and pulled pork nachos
Roy’s has a solid breakfast menu, but is perhaps best known for its brunch specials, which include burgers, cheeseburgers, wraps, fried fish, and more. The main event is the barbecue and accompanying sauces, which Williams makes in-house. The chef said Roy didn’t start out focusing so hard on grilling. There was a time when he only served it on Thursdays. That eventually changed to a daily show, due to customer demand.
“People started showing up on different days of the week and asking for it, and I was telling them (the roast) it was Thursday,” Williams said. And they were saying, Then we’ll see you on Thursday. I was like, hmmm. Well, let me change my paradigm. “
Over time, he’s added a few touches to his barbecue collection. For example, he said, pulled pork nachos with homemade queso has become a big seller.
If you spend any amount of time at Roy’s, you’ll see a rotating set of regular customers pouring in, most of them ordering from memory without even glancing at a menu. Williams salutes many of them by name.
On a recent Friday morning, Tristan Broadwater of Lexington came to Roy and ordered a bacon sandwich, eggs, cheese and some hash brown. Broadwater said she had surgery just before Christmas and was resting while she recovered, and Roy was one of the first places she came when she was able to get out.
“It’s home cooked, and I love home cooked food,” Broadwater said. “I’ve been looking forward to this since they told me I could drive again. This is the first place I’ve been to after my doctor’s appointment.”
While Williams notes that Roy’s Grille space in Exxon has been a blessing, he admits that he considered growing into a larger organization. But he points to a number of factors, including the epidemic spanning a third year, at play in his considerations.
“I just take a little time to figure it all out,” Williams said.
Meanwhile, the phone keeps ringing at Roy’s, and there are sauces to mix up and make sandwiches. And smoke from that grill continues to rise, a signal to hungry passersby that something special is waiting behind the doors of the old Exxon station.