LEWISTON — Sabattus street has welcomed a smoky new addition to the Lewiston culinary scene.
Burnt Ends, which opened Jan. 27, is a barbecue joint: That’s it. No tricks, no gimmicks. Straightforward Southern comfort food that just makes sense.
Owner and head chef Kevin Cunningham started the venture after almost 30 years in the food industry and a desire to make authentic barbecue that’s true to its roots yet accessible to a larger audience.
“Barbecue is awesome. It is like the epitome of comfort food, it is everything that is enjoyable about sitting down for a family meal with friends and with loved ones and just relaxing and eating good food.”
Cunningham has spent his career creating dishes in the same vein. Starting as a dishwasher at age 14, he went on to work in kitchens all over Massachusetts and Maine, including stints at Mac’s Grill in Auburn, Marche Kitchen and Wine Bar formerly on Lisbon Street in Lewiston, and the Brunswick Hotel.
Cunningham also co-owned the My Waffle food truck, which won a Top Gun Showcase award from the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Most recently, he was executive chef of the dining facilities at the University of Southern Maine, where he met his wife, Jill, with whom he runs the restaurant.
Up until now, Cunningham has spent his career working for other people, citing his experience watching restaurant owners struggle under the demands of maintaining their businesses.
“I never wanted to own my own restaurant. I literally said ‘never ever ever.’ I watched owners go through all the troubles and the problems and the financials. I do the financials when I open restaurants for people. I run all the numbers for them. I was always apprehensive because it’s hard to make a business (successful),” said Cunningham.
A turning point came when Cunningham and his wife participated in “JumpstartME,” a contest aimed at launching small businesses that is sponsored by the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and The Molloy Firm that offered the winner free rent for a year, business advice, advertising and marketing support, and more.
“I just kept getting the itch and wanted to do it, and when they had that downtown competition to win a space, that’s when I decided I’m going full tilt and I’m going to do this,” said Cunningham.
Although they did not win the contest, Cunningham and his wife had developed a business plan for the effort, and they realized they still had a viable business idea. Committing to serve at least 75 plates a day in order to stay afloat, the couple acquired their location on Sabattus street, as well as kitchen equipment and smokers at auction in New Jersey.
The menu ranges from sandwiches and specific cuts, to platters comprised of beef brisket, pulled pork, pork sausages, chorizo chicken and turkey, along with classic sides such as mac and cheese, collard greens, beans, and cornbread.
At times, inventory cannot keep up with customer demand, as they do not have a limit on the amount of meat a customer can buy. When they’re sold out, they close for the day, to the chagrin of hungry customers.
“Everything … we do is about that down-homey-style enjoyment of a meal,” said Cunningham.
Cunningham’s interest in barbecue has followed him throughout his career, gradually playing with different techniques and recipes — as well as being humbled by his mistakes — until he found a signature style. He joked that his first brisket came out “like leather.”
“I realized how hard a brisket can be. And ribs: You know, you can just do ribs, or you can do ribs,” said Cunningham. He emphasized that Burnt Ends does the latter, prioritizing high quality cuts of meat in order to ensure a superior product.
Although years of practice have made Cunningham better at his craft, he admits he’ll never master it — something he’s OK with, having embraced both the repetition and improvisation that the learning process affords him.
“I’ll never have it down. I’ll never even come close to some of the guys that are doing this down South. I think that I’m doing it good enough that people are enjoying it here and I guess that’s all I can ask for,” said Cunningham.
“I’m doing a good job and I feel I can always be better: The sign of a great chef is that he knows he can still do better,” he said.