Lyles brings passion to Cha-Nae’s Barbecue

Published 11:50 am Monday, October 15, 2012

Daniel Lyles prepares to serve up some of his signature barbecue at Cha-Nae’s.

It’s another sunny October Wednesday in Atmore, and just like every other weekday, Daniel Lyles has been working at Cha-Nae’s Barbecue at 135 M.L. King Ave. since the early hours of the morning. The brick building with its distinctive red and orange color scheme is easy to pick out, although the company’s sign and an old-fashioned ‘Ice cold Coca-Cola inside’ sign might help if you can’t spot it right away.

For many in the community, Cha-Nae’s had a familiarity even though it had been closed for some time. Lyles re-opened the doors earlier this year in April.

“I closed down in 2003 after the death of my former father-in-law and business partner,” Lyles said. “After he died in 2002, in 2003 I just couldn’t keep my head up and keep it going because that was my best buddy and my partner. After the death of him, I closed the doors.”

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Lyles said his former father-in-law and business partner, Charles Lawson, pushed him towards better things in times of great difficulty. It was only because of Lawson that Lyles was able to stay open for another year after his death.

“We were close,” Lyles said. “He did all of my cooking at that time — a very dedicated man, a very lovable man, and I’m not just saying it because I was married to his daughter. He’s a very lovable man. He’s a man that most people that met him liked. A lot of times, he kept me on the right track. A lot of times, I got big-headed, stubborn and wanted to just say quit. He said, ‘nah, you’re not gonna’ do it. You’re not gonna’ quit.’ I held on that extra year after he died because every time I thought about closing those doors — the day that he died, really I had planned on closing that weekend after he died, I was doing the reunion as I said — and every time I thought about closing the doors, I could hear him saying, ‘you’re not gonna quit, you’re not gonna quit.’”

Like the close relative that pops up in memories even after they’ve died, Lyles said his mind plays tricks on him when he almost feels as if Lawson is still there looking after things.

“Even since I’ve been back in here, I tease sometimes and I’ll be back in the washroom — his favorite place, he’d lean on the corner of that drink box — while I’m back there washing dishes or preparing something and he’d come there and stand there and talk to me and I know it’s just something in my mind because I don’t believe in ghosts and all this kind of stuff, but sometimes I’ll be standing there and I can see someone out of my peripheral vision standing there, leaning against that box, and I’ll look around and I’ll say, ‘Charlie, leave me alone.’ I know he’s not there, but it was just that close of a relationship between he and I that still exists.”

Nine years after closing Cha-Nae’s Barbecue, Lyles was renovating the unit where Cha-Nae’s originally opened for business and received a push to reopen from a familiar name.

“From ’97 ‘til 2003, the flow of customers was very good,” Lyles said. “But there were some other circumstances that I had to deal with that I just could not continue in the barbecue business and the barber shop business. I saw the barber shop as more profitable for me than the barbecue side, so I closed the barbecue. In 2012, when I decided to remodel the business, my youngest daughter stated ‘why don’t we re-open Cha-Nae’s?’”

Lyles’ youngest daughter is Cha-Nae, the namesake of the business. She played a key role in the early history of the store.

“She was my cashier,” Lyles said. “I’m not trying to pump her up or anything, but at four years old — and I know she wasn’t doing the full job as cashier — but she knew how to ring them up and sometimes she’d get the change from them and the young lady that was working here at the time was supporting her learning. By 2002, she was the full cashier. She was doing the whole thing at eight years old.”

Often, locally-owned businesses require help from family members and Lyles felt he could teach valuable lessons through Cha-Nae’s help at the business.

“She was my cashier, and I thought that was one of the things that I can do to instill in her the values of having something of her own,” Lyles said.

In fact, Lyles hopes Cha-Nae’s Barbecue will remain with his family for many years to come.

“Those are my hopes — my children, all of my children, my grandchildren — I’m hoping that it will be a business that will sustain the family,” Lyles said. “Not just my wife and myself and the daughter I have at the house and the two boys — they’re grown — but those three children, but all of my children. That’s what I’m hoping it will be.”

What might be surprising to some is the fact that Lyles didn’t even like barbecue while growing up.

“Honestly, as a child growing up, I didn’t like doing barbecue. I didn’t like barbecue,” Lyles said. “I never developed a taste for barbecue as a child growing up. When my parents went to a barbecue, I didn’t eat it. I didn’t even like the taste of sauce when I was growing up. I guess it was 1994 or 1993. I really had not developed a taste for barbecue then. It was one of the things where I just saw an opportunity there. God showed me a vision of how I could take care of my family, how I could support my family and how I could develop something that would be a life-sustaining finance for my children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren if they would take hold to it. And the thing that came to my mind to do that was to open up this place here.”

Lyles, the owner of Lyles Barber Shop next door to Cha-Nae’s Barbecue, has been a business owner long enough to have great wisdom in what it takes to have a successful career.

“My opinion, and it’s only my opinion, is the passion for doing what you are doing is the key to doing anything good, regardless of whether it’s barbecue, cutting hair, writing,” Lyles said. “You have to have a passion for what you’re doing because if you have a passion, then you’ll find yourself putting in extra time to make sure that it’s good. Also, when it comes down to my opinion, when it comes down to food, serve nothing that you wouldn’t eat yourself.”

Lyles has learned such wisdom through owning two businesses and working long hours.

“My typical day is 12 to 16 hours a day, six to seven days a week,” Lyles said. “Like one guy told me one time, he said ‘in order to be in the business you have to be married to the business and your wife is your sweetheart,’ and that’s pretty much it. I’m married to the business and my wife is my sweetheart. A lot of days, I’m in here at six o’clock in the morning.”

Lyles said all the hard work is worth it when people who aren’t even living in Atmore stop him to compliment him and his staff.

“The greatest thing about this job is that — and I very seldom get to see anyone really sit down and enjoy my food — but to hear people talk about how tasty it is, how good it tastes and I have gone to Bay Minette and I’ve gone to Pensacola and I’ll hear people say — they see the sign on the back of my truck — ‘I’ve heard about you, I’ve heard how good your food is, I’ve heard what kind of attitude your staff has.’”

While Cha-Nae’s Barbecue gets a fair share of compliments, Lyles often has people who want to know his secret recipe. That will have to remain a secret.