Cahokia’s Sawmill BBQ feels like a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains.
The exterior is old barnwood trimmed with corrugated metal. Yard art ranges from a wringer washing machine to a primitive wheel barrel. Window awnings are aluminum troughs cut in half. Flowers grow in a wooden barrel.
The rustic theme continues inside with antique lanterns, iron skillets, a hand plow, oxen yoke and wagon-wheel chandelier. A potbellied stove heats the front room on cold days.
“When we looked at the place, we just fell in love with it right away,” said co-owner Steve Will, 55, of south St. Louis, who bought the restaurant in May with his wife, Vicki.
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They took over from Ben Busby, his son, Kyle, and daughter-in-law, Allison, who opened Sawmill nine years ago after tearing down a century-old barn and using the wood to enclose a pavilion. They still own Cahokia RV Parque next door.
The Wills stuck with the Busbys’ formula, especially the high-quality meat and friendly service.
“People are so personable,” said customer Keith Powell, 50, of Alton, who manages National Rent-to-Own down the road and stops in three or four times a week.
“They’re interested. They remember your name. When you walk in the door, it’s like ‘Cheers.’”
The menu is all about barbecue — brisket, pulled pork, turkey, brats, ribs, pork steaks and chicken. It’s seasoned with dry rubs, slow-smoked with hickory wood and served with housemade sauces.
The atmosphere is cool. It’s like a hidden gem. It’s not on a main drag. A lot of people don’t know about it.
Customer Zac Bitzer on Sawmill BBQ
“Who doesn’t like barbecue?” said customer Zac Bitzer, 33, of Maryville. “But I think they have the best brisket around. We’ll get the nachos with the brisket on them ($6.99 small or $11.99 large), and they’re excellent. The chips are homemade.”
He was having a late lunch with fiance Krista Oberneufemann, who ordered a brisket platter ($13.49 or $14.49 with two sides). They also like the pork steaks.
Zac is a welder who used to work nearby, building barges on the Mississippi River. He has eaten at Sawmill hundreds of times, and his former crew ordered take-out for company parties.
“The atmosphere is cool,” Zac said. “It’s like a hidden gem. It’s not on a main drag. A lot of people don’t know about it.”
The address is 4060 Mississippi Ave., which is Illinois 3. It’s 10 minutes from downtown St. Louis, a perk that both sets of owners have tried to capitalize on.
“You can smell our butts from the Arch!” the menu reads.
Customers order at the counter from a chalkboard menu and get metal pie plates full of food delivered to booths, regular tables or high-tops made of barrels and tree stumps.
Another regular is Jim Hart, a retired physician who lives in the RV park. He stops in almost every day and usually orders a salad with brisket ($9.99). You can also get turkey or pork.
“It’s such fresh meat on top of it, and I try to watch my weight,” said Jim, 82. “It’s not a high-calorie item. This is the freshest meat you’ll find.”
On the same day, Dave Heiney, 48, of Waterloo, was enjoying a meal with his daughter, Abby Heiney, 20.
“I’m a big fan,” she said. “The pulled pork ($11.99 or $12.99 with two sides) is my favorite thing in the world. I get it every time. And it has such a homey feel.”
Dave is a Cahokia police officer who occasionally eats at Sawmill with co-workers. His union representative likes the barbecue so much, he’s been known to drive all the way from Springfield.
Dave’s first choice is brisket, and his second choice is the fried chicken bacon club ($8.49 with two sides).
Other popular menu items are baby back ribs ($14.99 half a rack or $22.99 full) and the grilled cheeseburger ($7.99 single or $9.99 double with two sides).
“Our baby back ribs are second to none,” Steve said. “We smoke our own bacon, so people like our BLTs.”
Sawmill also serves breakfast Monday through Friday in the summer, including traditional bacon and eggs, a “slinger,” a breakfast sandwich, biscuits with sausage gravy, French toast and pancakes.
Our baby back ribs are second to none. We smoke our own bacon, so people like our BLTs.
Owner Steve Wills on favorite menu items
Steve worked 18 years for Pasta House, mainly at its Charlie Spoon’s and Bret Hull’s restaurants. He briefly partnered in Two Nice Guys before spending his last 15 years as an Applebee’s manager. Vicki did office work and part-time catering.
Steve was itching to own his own place again, so when a food-supplier friend told him about Sawmill, he and Vicki went there to eat in early April. Six weeks later, they bought it.
Steve went from supervising 70 employees to seven. The restaurant now has nine employees.
“There was definitely a fear factor,” said Vicki, 56. “We have commitments and responsibilities. I had been at my job for 14 years, and he had been in his job 15 years. We had vacation time, benefits. But sitting at a desk eight hours a day ... I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore.”
Today, the Wills, who have four grown children and one granddaughter, are working many more hours but having a ball.
“The clientele (at Sawmill) is so happy, and the girls know them all,” Vicki said. “It’s such a pleasant experience, so laid back.”
“I wanted to be more hands-on, and I got my wish,” Steve said, laughing. “The other night I was taking the trash out, and I thought, ‘I never did that at Applebee’s.’ And I love it.”
At a glance
- What: Sawmill BBQ
- Where: 4060 Mississippi Ave. in Cahokia
- Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday (breakfast served from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday in the summer)
- Seating: 70, including party room
- Handicap-accessible: Yes
- Services: Carryouts, delivery and catering
- Information: Call 618-332-3000 or vist www.sawmillbbq.com or the Facebook page