Roger Sharp is the quintessential Paso Roblan: down-to-earth, hard-working, and sensible.
"Just come on over to the Chill Zone," Sharp would tell people worrying about the world on social media, inviting them to relax at Big Bubba's Bad BBQ, Paso's landmark barbecue and smoked-meat joint that's been everyone's favorite for 19 years.
When COVID-19 restrictions had Bubba's limited to takeout, he sold his frozen adult beverages in FroZip to-go pouches. Then, when shelter-at-home orders continued, Bubba's was handing out free toilet paper with every sandwich purchase. Sharp was hoping people would have some fun with the idea.
- Photos Courtesy Of Roger Sharp
- A THANK YOU WITH SPECIAL SAUCE At the beginning of June, Big Bubba's Bad BBQ prepared trays of barbecue for the Paso Robles Police Department and Protect Paso civilian "protectors" to help them face the long nights ahead.
At the very least, he hoped they'd laugh and know Bubba's has them covered.
"We always try to bring the good in whatever situation," said Sharp, a father of four and a grandfather (of one and one on the way). "Coronavirus kind of knocked us down a little bit, but you know, we're all just people. Let's just keep it real. And when you're done being fancy, just come on over to Big Bubba's and we'll chat, whatever."
It's calm, it's safe, and it's open, he's been saying lately. His places are super-clean, with hand-washing stations and CDC guidelines met. At one of Sharp's restaurants, the 12-year-old Tortilla Town in Paso, there's no other option than to chill and enjoy, and at Bubba's you can step up and order from colorful machines dispensing about nine recipes of slushie-type adult frozen drinks: He makes a Tangy Tequila frozen drink with actual powdered Tang—the kind of slushie we hoped we'd be drinking at the Mid-State Fair.
Sharp grew up in Paso Robles and loves the community that helped him grow, such as Templeton's John Odem—who met Sharp when he was 14 years old while he sold Odem's Crown Cinnamon Rolls at the Mid-State Fair. And when he was a junior Bearcat in high school, Odem helped him jump-start his own churro cart at Avila Beach.
- Photos Courtesy Of Roger Sharp
- BUBBA'S GIVES THANKS Roger Sharp's crew at Big Bubba's Bad BBQ wants the Paso Police Department to come on over for dinner. Here they're preparing gift cards for the police department, in a community-wide effort to show local law enforcement some love. Bubba's is one of many local restaurants and wineries flooding the police stations with food and gift cards.
Many food carts later, Sharp owns and operates an array of food ventures—entertainment gigs and fairs, restaurants and food stands and catering, plus he travels the nation selling barbecue on the road.
When coronavirus hit, Sharp was in Houston for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the second largest event in the United States—averaging 100,000 visitors per day. It took him three weeks to set up, with his barbecue operation taking up half of a football field—35 registers and grills full of meat. It cost him thousands of dollars to get there with all his equipment. He came with 10 employees and hired 60 locals while there. And then ... .
Sharp said the Livestock Show leadership pulled him into the office and told him the Houston mayor had shut them down by noon. "They texted me at 11:35 a.m. in Houston, and we already had food on the grill."
"And that's the way it went ... . We had tens of thousands dollars in inventory," he laughed, without any sort of animosity or hard-luck mentality. "I mean it was unbelievable. We were walking around like zombies when that happened."
But instead of moping or throwing a fit, Sharp packed up his trailer, donated all the food to the local food bank, and drove home.
"You talk about challenging times," Sharp reminded me.
He said he's had his American flags up on the top of Bubba's since the day after 9/11.
"We were halfway through the project," he said, noting he was the general contractor for the restaurant's fort-like structure—a three-year project. Then came the 9/11 attacks. So he put the flags up then, and he's kept them up.
"So coronavirus hits, we never closed a day," Sharp said. "We automatically switched over to to-go. We had to let all the staff go," he said, paring down to himself, his wife, and two cooks at Bubba's.
- Photos Courtesy Of Roger Sharp
- TORTILLA TOWN IN SLO TOWN Are you excited for tacos, burritos, gorditas, and salads? Tortilla Town—same owner as Big Bubba's Bad BBQ—opened a second location at 892 Marsh St., SLO, during the second week in June.
At his Tortilla Town in Paso, he kept all employees, but had to cut their hours to a minimum when business slowed.
"No one knew what to do. What does lockdown mean?" he said, knowing Bubba's dine-in model would take a harder hit than the walk-up-and-order Tortilla Town. But with the uncertainty, he said, "We just keep doing our thing. We don't get too scared ... we don't give up."
Speaking of not giving up, Sharp continued moving forward with opening a second Tortilla Town location in SLO on June 12. That's right—during COVID-19 and a time of protests and civil unrest.
"I couldn't be happier, the way it turned out," he said. "Whatever I do, I do with all my heart," he said.
The walls are colorful, and Tortilla Town's ambience is lighthearted and cozy. The Mexican eatery features delicious, made-from-scratch burritos, tacos, and gorditas.
Recently Sharp was working on his new Tortilla Town location in SLO. All was well, until ... .
"It was the day that they had the first protest, and it got a little bit out of hand," Sharp said, speaking of the June 1 protest that ended, according to SLO Police Chief Deanna Cantrell, with officers firing pepper balls and tear gas when the group ignored an hour of warnings not to enter the freeway again as they had before. Protesters through rocks, water bottles, and firecrackers at police, according to police and protest attendees.
Sharp witnessed the chaos, and then sat in traffic. After watching the news and seeing people "not conducting themselves very well," he felt nervous about the upcoming protests in Paso. But he decided to stay open.
He said he knew the Paso community felt just as nervous after seeing what happened in SLO, so he decided to run some food to the people and officers who were downtown.
"I boxed up a bunch of food, and when I got there, there were six or seven police cars lined up and everybody was standing outside of their car ... and I said, 'Here! Thanks for doing a great job today, it was really nice.'"
As far as the Paso protest, Sharp said, "It went really smooth. They were there. They did their protest, which we all think is fine. Protesting's not bad. I'm all for protesting. What I'm not all for is you come breaking my stuff. I don't care who that is, right?"
And he, his wife, and employees continued to drop off food to the Paso police station, night after night—barbecue from Bubba's, tacos from Tortilla Town.
Within a week a group called Protect Paso took Sharp's lead. They had organized gift baskets for the 35 members of the police department, with bottles of wine from wineries, gift cards from local eateries, and a large pile of Tortilla Town gift cards from Sharp.
"We don't need it because they're police officers, we need it because they're human beings," he said. "They are doing their job, we appreciate it, and thank you!" Δ
Flavor writer Beth Giuffre is ready to share the love. Send foodie tips to [email protected].