Sam Lance has been in the flooring business for 23 years, so opening a restaurant really wasn't on his radar screen.
But the 45-year-old New Athens man caught the barbecue bug from a childhood friend, and now he's a partner in Steamboat Biscuit and Brisket.
The restaurant opened in December after Sam gutted and remodeled a vacant building that formerly housed Mike's Drive-In and Gary's Restaurant. It specializes in pulled pork, beef brisket, ribs and other meat smoked with hickory.
"All of our barbecue is cooked a day in advance," Sam said. "It generally takes 12 to 14 hours to smoke briskets and butts for them to be cooked properly and to have the smoke ring and bark that people like."
The restaurant's name comes from steamboats that helped build New Athens along the Kaskaskia River in the 1800s. A giant faux paddlewheel lines the counter.
Sam's wife, Ida, serves as manager. Other employees include his mother, Peggy, and three daughters, Kalyn, 18, Alina, 16, and Bailey, 13.
On a recent weekday, customer David Park was eating lunch at Steamboat with his brother, George, sister Sandy Pillers and her husband, Bill.
"I get the same thing every time -- the pulled pork sandwich," said David, 53, of rural New Athens. "They've got a seasoning that they put on it that's excellent. It's the best barbecue I've had."
The restaurant also serves burgers, catfish, chicken wings and daily specials ranging from loaded nachos to fish and chips.
One of the most popular specials is spaghetti with meatballs on Mondays. The meatballs are smoked like barbecue.
Breakfast is available Fridays through Sundays. That includes specialty biscuit sandwiches, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, French toast and corn beef hash.
"We also do a standard breakfast with two eggs, bacon or sausage, hash browns and toast for $5.95," Sam said.
Bernice Fuller, 80, of Waterloo, and Anna Hammel, 91, of New Athens, have become regular customers at Steamboat. They worked together at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Belleville decades ago and still meet for lunch once a week.
"We had catfish and sweet potato fries two weeks in a row, and it was very good," Bernice said. "But we decided to have something different this time (burgers). It's good, too."
Sam's business partner is John Bovinette, a childhood friend from Fairview Heights. They kept in touch after John moved to Northern Illinois to work for Nortel. Sam owns Flooring Fashions in O'Fallon.
About 10 years ago, John decided to enter a Memphis in May barbecue competition and asked for Sam's help building a portable floor.
"Down there, part of the competition is your booth appearance," Sam said. "They judge you on that. At that time, the name of his cooking team was the Church of Swinetology. The floor was supposed to make it like the inside of a church. People could sit down and talk about barbecue."
John continued to enter competitions and eventually bought his own restaurant in Wheaton. Today, it's called Steamboat Biscuit and Brisket.
The Wheaton location focuses on carryouts, while the New Athens location has a small-town, diner feel with tables and chairs and a few seats at the counter.
The restaurant doesn't serve alcohol, but people can bring their own. Sam hopes to attract Kaskaskia River boaters this summer.
"Every day that I come here, I always try to speak to the customers and thank them for coming in and ask them how they found out about us," he said. "And every day, there's someone new, which is good."
At a glance
What: Steamboat Biscuit and Brisket
Where: 508 S. Benton in New Athens
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays
Information: Call 475-9377 or visit Facebook page
On the menu
The Hammer -- Open-face breakfast sandwich on a biscuit with egg, bacon, sausage, cheese, hash browns and gravy, $7
Riverbender Breakfast -- Three eggs, two meats, biscuit, hash browns, two pancakes, gravy and beverage, $9
Beef Brisket Sandwich -- Hickory-smoked brisket with choice of one side, $7.50
Catfish Sandwich -- Fried catfish with lettuce, tomato, onion, house cat sauce and choice of one side, $6
Championship Pork Ribs -- St. Louis-style ribs with choice of two sides, $11 for half rack or $16 for full rack
Spaghetti and Smoked Meatballs -- Spaghetti with meatballs smoked like barbecue, served with garlic bread, $9.95 (Monday special)