Keep a family restaurant going for nearly seven decades and the memories pile up like breakfast orders on a Saturday morning. At least, that’s how it used to feel for Suzanne Flint, who spent much of her life visiting, serving food at, and eventually operating Carr’s Barn Bar-B-Q in Mayfield, Kentucky.
Flint’s grandparents Wayne and Ozell Carr opened the restaurant in the 1950s. Over the decades, the multi-generational family business earned a spot on the state’s Western Kentucky Barbecue Trail, the Graves County Barbecue Trail, and a write-up in the author Wes Berry’s Bluegrass State BBQ manifesto, The Kentucky Barbecue Book, lauding the hickory-smoked pulled pork.
The novelist Bobbie Ann Mason grew up near Mayfield and vividly recalls the sensory experience of visiting Carr’s. “Inside, it was hot and stuffy, with heavy smells of barbecue and lingering fried breakfast,” she remembers. “Carr’s was so small it was just a long counter with stools.”
For people in Mayfield today, the memories of Carr’s Barn and so many other one-time landmarks around town look and feel different now, viewed through the lens of the cataclysmic tornadoes that swept through Western Kentucky on the night of December 10, 2021. The storm devastated downtown Mayfield and produced the worst tornado event in the state’s history, part of a multi-state tornado outbreak that killed 87 people and inflicted billions of dollars in damage.
As soon as the tornado had passed through Mayfield, Suzanne and her husband, Wayne, their house unharmed, headed downtown to check on their restaurant, navigating downed power lines, broken glass, and debris. There was no electricity, no moon or starlight.
They found the restaurant’s barn-style roof first, then the walls, collapsed on the ground. Suzanne could have seen it as the last straw—after keeping the restaurant going through COVID, after fighting through her own health issues including breast cancer, after years of rearranging her days to keep the pit smoking meat day and night. She could have said, enough. Instead, with rain hitting her face, she said, “We’re going to rebuild.”
The storm struck Friday night. On Sunday, President Biden issued a major federal disaster declaration for the Kentucky counties most affected by the storms, which included Graves County. The EF-4 tornado barely touched some neighborhoods but ravaged others. Mayfield’s candle factory collapsed, killing nine people. Downtown, the courthouse, the post office, and city hall were among the buildings gutted or destroyed.
The Flints spent the weekend clearing off their lot and surveying more personal examples of the tornado’s power and capriciousness. Carr’s Barn Bar-B-Q’s brick-and-mortar firepit, which weighed well north of 1,000 pounds, was just gone, along with picnic tables, assorted equipment, and mementos. Suzanne did find her grandmothers’ skillet and biscuit pans in the rubble, along with a bucketful of eggs, none of which had suffered even a cracked shell.
The Flints had no insurance on the building at the time, and their savings wouldn’t cover the six-figure cost of designing and building a new restaurant. They started a GoFundMe page and also received support from a number of businesses and nonprofits, including Southern Smoke Foundation, Why Not Charleston, Dunlop Tires, and the Kentucky Restaurant Association. A woman from Wales saw Suzanne in an NBC News story and sent the Flints a check for $1,000.
They knew there would be government aid of some kind (a spokesperson for the federal Small Business Administration says low-interest loans were available to tornado-affected businesses), but they feared delays, so they took out a bank loan, mortgaging their house and the restaurant lot itself.
The Flints say it wasn’t easy signing those papers, but they did it in part to provide hope to people in Mayfield. Though most of the debris is gone from downtown now, the rebuilt restaurant stands defiantly among a crater of empty lots. The skeleton of a new building stands within sight of the restaurant’s front door. Teams of volunteers are building houses not far away. “It’s so nice to see something going up instead of coming down,” says Wayne, who works in construction.
In June, six months and five days after the storm leveled the old restaurant, Suzanne and Wayne quietly welcomed their first post-tornado customers.
Rechristened as simply the Barn, the new place includes more than 500 additional square feet and is one of the first Mayfield businesses to fully return from devastation to operation. Lacking a new firepit (at least for now), the Flints are emphasizing breakfast, a choice that seems to sit just fine with the customers who’ve been filling up the tables and counter stools.
Among the regulars is Peggy Doran, who started coming to Carr’s Barn about forty years ago. When she heard about the reopening, she says, “I would have turned a flip if I’d been able. I was tickled to death.” She says she cried for months after seeing the devastation in her hometown. “Part of us is gone and it won’t be the same.”
Forrest House says he’s been eating here for more than fifty years. On a recent morning, while enjoying a western omelet, he told the story of how his house came apart around him in the tornado, leaving him with a broken back and nowhere to live. Now he’s recovering in a motel while his house is being rebuilt and coming to the Barn almost every day.
“It’s like a community,” House says, adding, “When you want some good eating, you better come here.”
That good eating includes silver-dollar-sized biscuits made with Suzanne’s grandmother’s recipe (and baking pans), eggs over easy with the edges cooked to the brink of crunch, and a pulled pork sandwich topped with housemade barbecue sauce (the cayenne gives it a nice kick). The menu items are served with a darlin’ and a smile by a waitstaff that includes Kim Shelton, a former Carr’s Barn server and an old friend of Suzanne’s. She could have retired or focused on the trucking business she owns with her husband. Instead, she arrived on a recent morning at 2:00 a.m. to help Suzanne fill an order of 400 biscuits for Mayfield Consumer Products, the company rebuilding the town’s candle factory.
“I’m doing this because I love these people,” Shelton says. “Everyone who comes in here is family. They may not be blood, but they’re family.”
When she worked at the original Carr’s Barn Bar-B-Q, Suzanne says she felt she could practically look up and see her grandparents, her mother, her late brother. So far, she hasn’t sensed them in the Barn. “They’re in my mind and in my heart, but not in the place.” Still, she says, “This is where we’re supposed to be.”
Maybe Suzanne will feel her family’s presence again—in time. After all, rebuilding is one thing; recovery is another. For now, she’s focusing on who is showing up at the Barn: a line of customers eager for coffee, hot cakes, and conversation, ready to make some new memories in Mayfield.