On December 1, 1999, Ken Ingersoll left his job as a refinery operator. Two weeks later, on December 15, Ingersoll opened Gracie’s Family BBQ — Gracie’s for short — in a 16-foot trailer on Springs Road in Vallejo. “I decided, you know, if I could pay my bills, I’m going to do this,” Ingersoll says. The Gracie’s of 20 years ago hardly resembles Gracie’s now: then, Ingersoll cooked a limited menu on used restaurant equipment in a parking lot; now, Gracie’s occupies a refurbished 1930s gas station and turns out an extensive menu of barbecued meats and sides to hundreds of Vallejo customers every week.
Ingersoll has never been to Texas, Kansas, or any other state that takes pride in its barbecue, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the menu tastes: Gracie’s, which is named for Ingersoll’s daughter, cooks most everything from scratch. Gracie’s offers classic barbecue fixings: chicken, baby back ribs, pulled pork, and burnt ends are each smoked or roasted and smothered with Gracie’s barbecue sauce.
The southern-style sweet tea that’s served in a Mason jar is brewed with a coffee maker and loaded up with sugar. The lemonade is also made on site (for the best of both worlds, Gracie’s offers “Swamp Juice,” their take on an Arnold Palmer but with sweet tea). One of the only things that isn’t made on-site are the Louisiana hot links, which come from Courage Production in Fairfield, just 18 miles northeast of Vallejo.
Ingersoll is most animated when he’s talking about Gracie’s sides, though the chicken and ribs are the most popular items with customers, who have even helped shape the menu, offering feedback on the cornbread, sweet potato pie, and coleslaw. Ingersoll is a fan of the coleslaw from Kentucky Fried Chicken — it’s sweet and cuts through fatty, heavier items. After developing the first iteration of Gracie’s coleslaw, a customer said that it was too sweet and that the salad needed balance. Ingersoll took the feedback to heart, later adding Granny Smith apples and cranberries.
The cornbread shares a similar story: “So this guy comes in and says, you know, your cornbread is really good … but I know what you can do to make it better,” Ingersoll says. “He says, ‘You need to add creamed corn to it. The pulp will give it density and retain the moisture.’” Another customer suggested that when preparing the ingredients for Gracie’s sweet potato pie, Ingersoll roast the potatoes after boiling and peeling them. She told him that this would caramelize the sugars on the outside of the potato and lend the pie a different complexity.
Even Gracie’s location, at the corner of Sonoma St. — one of Vallejo’s busiest roads — and Virginia St. — right near the main stretch of downtown — was the result of a longtime friendship and mentorship with Fred Sessler, who was also an early Gracie’s customer.
Ingersoll takes pride in Gracie’s menu, but having been born and raised in Vallejo, it’s the community he’s built that means the most to him. “You know, the food is easy — you just have to be consistent. The best part is the community.”
As a business owner, he’s able to build community in ways that an individual might not. For instance, in 2009, a year following Vallejo’s bankruptcy declaration, Ingersoll partnered with his best friend and fellow business owner Ray Prather to fund the July 4 fireworks show. After the city had slashed its budget, the two didn’t want their community to miss out on the tradition that they had grown up with. “You’re busy with owning a restaurant, or owning a business — you’re busy. But you can’t lose sight of the humanity around you,” Ingersoll says. “It’s always about people.”
Ingersoll is a recognizable face in the city of 120,000, and through his community work, people see him as a de facto city leader. For anyone else, hosting the yearly firework show and running a beloved restaurant might be the onramp to running for public office. But for Ingersoll, Gracie’s isn’t a platform for anything else than serving good barbecue. Though Ingersoll says he’s been asked to seek an official role in the city, his focus is to keep doing what comes naturally to him: maintaining relationships with customers and friends. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, you kind of grow attached to them, they kind of make up your life.”
“I realized that in the job that I have you have this impact and this influence over people, and you need to be able to respect it at all times … I mean, the best part of the restaurant, as you know, is the community,” Ingersoll says.
Gracie’s is located at 1801 Sonoma Blvd in Vallejo. Hours are currently 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, Satudays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Online ordering is available here.