On a muggy, buggy afternoon, Ashley Moss brushes damp strands of blonde hair away from her face.
Nearby beach-goers are enjoying the sun and sand along the Yorktown waterfront, but Moss and her crew are hard at work setting up a catering event behind the Watermen's Museum. In a few hours guests will be wolfing down pulled pork sandwiches, baby back ribs, ham biscuits and chicken salad croissants. But now it's time to "make the magic," as she calls the setup phase of the job.
Under a large white tent they quickly spread tablecloths and hang paper lanterns containing LED lights. Each table is decorated with candles and arranged with plastic dogwood blossoms and cardinals that suggest a Virginia theme for this political event.
"This is the first time we've used paper lanterns," says Moss, who owns Smokin' Joe's BBQ on George Washington Memorial Highway. "Each time we try something a little different."
Parked by the tent is her truck with the logo painted on the side: "Smokin' Joe's Full Service Catering. Where Southern food meets Southern hospitality."
That night Moss had the luxury of working only one catering job. At this time of year the jobs come fast and furious, sometimes six to 10 a week. During graduation week she catered 40 events.
People hire her for wedding anniversaries, birthday and retirement parties, even a corporate gathering for 1,000 workers. She caters events from Richmond to Virginia Beach, including beach weddings where the food has to be hauled in on golf carts.
"We work most weekends, but we know it's summertime so it's part of the deal," says Moss. "My father never wanted me to have to work weekends and holidays, but I love what I do.
"There's a lot of passion in it," she adds. "When it stops becoming fun, I guess I'll move on. But right now it's a whole lot of fun."
Moss, 34, says her family has always been in the restaurant business. When she went to Virginia Tech to study hotel and restaurant management, her parents moved to Kilmarnock to take care of her grandfather. There her dad started a barbecue place called Savannah Joe's (named for her niece). She worked there for a few years before striking out on her own.
In 2000 she opened a place in Gloucester before relocating to the York County site two years later. Smokin' Joe's BBQ is named after her grandfather, the late Joe Moss. The small restaurant has become a popular local hangout with some regulars stopping by daily. During the holidays folks bring in their turkeys to be smoked.
"Since I opened we've had a lot of ups and downs," she says. "The economy has been terrible, and so five years ago I sat down and made a plan and really started pushing the catering."
Moss upgraded her menu and worked on the presentation, adding tablecloths and other decorations to personalize each event. Sometimes at night she'll try out different table settings in her dining room to come up with something unique for her clients.
"It's been word of mouth, and each year we get a little better," she says. "It's a lot of work and you really have to think outside of the box. It's the extra things we do."
She puts the same attention into her food, which is prepared in a large smoker in the back of the restaurant. Moss buys fresh Boston pork butts and slabs of beef that are cooked overnight. Her barbecue recipe doesn't adhere to any particular style, and she includes a variety of sauces on the table to appeal to customers' different tastes. Sides like baked beans and salads are made in house from recipes her family created.
"Everything comes in fresh and we smoke it and sell it out," she says. "My mom created the dry rub and now we have it manufactured in New Jersey."
With two or more events sometimes scheduled at the same time, Moss counts on her loyal staff to keep things running smoothly. Managers Holly Hogge and Sarah Hansford have been with her for more than six years.
"Every event is different, and the people are different so there's a lot of variety," says Hogge. "What's different about us is that we'll go anywhere and do anything. We may make things hard for ourselves but it makes it special for our clients."
Moss says the staff often gets together on days off to hit the beach or relax on the boat.
"It's kind of like a little family around here," she says. "We all look out for each other."
Want to go?
Want to go?
What: Smokin' Joe's BBQ
Where: 5619 George Washington Memorial Highway, York County.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.