Rogue of the month: Jim Ruddell
Ruddell’s Smokehouse is smaller than a rich man’s bathroom
‘Us smokers, we’re a different breed, we’re like a circle of crusty old women with recipes everybody wants, but we don’t give up nothing.‘
Jim Ruddell’s little corner of the world
ROGUE OF THE MONTH
By Dell Franklin
There used to be smokehouses up and down the coast, on every pier in every little beach burg from San Diego to San Francisco and points north. Weathered shacks similar in size to tiny bait shops, manned by fish-smelly, aproned, becapped, grimy faced eccentrics, an obscure breed dishing out smoked salmon, yellowtail, albacore, oysters, and sometimes pork or poultry and a little jerky.
Jim Ruddell, who learned the rudiments of smoking from his Louisana father and uncles, grew up and lived in the Santa Monica area for 30 years. He was driving home from work on the freeway shortly after the verdict of the Rodney King trial precipitated the L.A. riots. He looked around and realized he was the ONLY car on the freeway. Gunshots rang out and crackled like a Viet Nam firefight. All around him the city seemed to be burning. He felt as if he were driving through Dante’s Inferno. He’d been meaning to get out of L.A. for years, but now he had an epiphany: “I’m gettin’ the hell outta here!” When he arrived home to his wife and two-day-old daughter, he said: “We’re outta here.”
It took him more than a year to make contacts among friends and relatives on the Central Coast. He had a full-time job at Toyota, running the maintenance department. People came up to him with mechanically plagued cars, expecting the worst, to got gouged. It was not pleasant work, even for a sunny extrovert like Jim Ruddell, who never liked wearing a uniform and name tag.
“It’s like going to the dentist to these people,” he says. “I always tried to be understanding and helpful and honest and give them the best deal I could. I’m a people person, somebody who wants to make you feel good. Not being able to do that made this a pretty high-stress job: Everybody in a hurry to get their cars fixed and get out; everybody in the garage in a hurry to get your car fixed and get started on a new one. A rat-race. I was fed up with it. I had this dream: Go up to the Central Coast, where there weren’t many people, take at least a 50 percent pay loss at the same job, and in the meantime start up a smokehouse.”
“But the odds aren’t good, are they?” I asked. “Starting an obsolete business, pretty much, and being, an anachronism…”
“A dinosaur. I started out by taking an old used pizza oven and turning it into a smoker in the back yard of our home in Morro Bay. My wife thought I was nuts. But I started smoking in the back yard for a few friends. I smoked turkeys for them. Every year about this time I do a turkey smoke. Believe it or not, smoking a turkey is a lot healthier than barbecueing; there’s no carcinogens.”
Ruddell kept working at the car dealership in San Luis Obispo at less than half of what he made down south, and then he built a new smoker in a pole barn on the ranch of a friend in Cayucos. He got to some serious smoking.
He had an old pickup. Without a business licencse, he found little spots along the highways all over San Luis Obispo County, from Highway 1 to Nacimiento Road out by Chimney Rock to Old Creek Road. He pulled over in spots and put out his sign: “SMOKED FISH.”
“I hung out on Highway 1 a mile north of Cayucos for almost nine months. The cops would stop and hassle me about a license, and finally I’d move on. I started doing it on weekends and then duringthe week, and twice I had to go back to work at the dealership to keep the money coming in.”
Was it crazy, giving up a career to sell smoked fish out in the middle of nowhere? You bet.
But Ruddell’s a rogue, who doesn’t listen to reason. Like most rogues, he’s inclined to fight the odds and go against the grain. He believes in his dream and is not afraid to follow it, or fail.
Ruddell, who partied and raised hell with the best of them, and does not regret any of it, but is now off the booze, opened his tiny smokehouse in Cayucos in the fall of 2001, about 10 yards from the sea wall and a block from the old pier.
He loves his new milieu. People aren’t going to the dentist when they come into his shop these days. They can have a good time hanging out, listening to jam sessions outside his store on Sundays, and he can watch with pride and gratification as his customers eat his smoked products. He’s got his own music going during the week—‘60s and ‘70s stuff—and he’s looking at the beach, soaking up the funky atmosphere. No uniform, just shorts, a T-shirt, and a ballcap. And he’s his own boss.
“What about the booze? Why’d you quit?”
“I was always a drinker, but I never had the freedom to drink like I did when I got my own place. You couldn’t drink at my past jobs, and I didn’t want to, but here I was, alone, with all this freedom, and it got out of hand. I was beginning to feel like a wreck, the hangovers were killing me, and I felt bad about what I was doing to myself. I was jeopardizing my business, my marriage, family, and realized I was needing a drink instead of wanting one. I was headed for disaster, and so I went to AA and I go every morning and I’m much happier. Everybody’s happier. It worked out.”
Ruddell says he owns the only HACCP inspected (hazard analysis of critical control points) retail smokehouse in the state. How’s business? He ships his smoked products all over the country. When I visited him, he was getting ready to ship some to Washington, D.C. He’s on the internet (www.smokerjim.com). He’s been written about in the New York Times, which is probably why East Coast tourists traveling up and down the Big Sur coastline stop off at his place for a sample of something unique at the last outpost.
Ruddell’s Smokehouse is smaller than a rich man’s bathroom and Donald Trump’s clothes closet. He’s got a deli case, upright, bathtub-sized smoker, stove, cutting board, some equipment stuffed in back, and his dream—that’s it. But he’s thriving, and in the summer he cranks.
The nearest smokehouse?
“I think they do some smoking on the Avila Beach pier, and there’s a smokehouse somewhere around Santa Barbara, and there’s one at Moss Landing, north of Monterey. Us smokers, and I know most of them, we’re a different breed, we’re like a circle of crusty old women with recipes everybody wants, but we don’t give up nothing.”
Not that he’s got to worry. He’s got the secret, and nobody’s going to open a smokehouse anywhere around here in the distant future, and nobody’s about to make a smoker out of an old discarded pizza oven, much less a pole barn. §
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Publisher Dell Franklin can be reached at email@example.com.