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WATCH NOW: Business Fridays: Backwater BBQ

From the COLLECTION: Business Fridays featuring Winona small businesses series
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Owner of Backwater BBQ, Lance Westby, loads up the smoker with bacon. The Backwater BBQ smoker smokes around 100 pounds of pork butt a day.

After 25 years working as a safety and environmental manager in Winona, Lance Westby took the chance on opening up a barbecue restaurant in town. And on April 5 of this year, Backwater BBQ opened for business.

Located in the northwest corner of the Winona Mall, Backwater BBQ grew out of a passion Westby had been practicing for years.

“Just working different safety and environmental manager roles at a few companies over the years I got burnt out,” said Westby. “I just couldn’t stand it. I was not happy going to work. Then during the COVID shutdown, I made up my mind. Why not pursue this passion?”

Westby said a friend first introduced barbecue and smoking meat to him as a hobby.

“He taught me how to smoke in the backyard,” said Westby. “Tinkering around with stuff all the time, we did a lot of experimenting. And from that, it has all evolved over the last 16 years and I’ve been picking up different recipes and tweaking them along the way. I’ve been able to use pretty much all the recipes that I’ve tweaked and come up with over the years in the restaurant.”

Westby said since opening, he and the Backwater BBQ manager, Nate Krage, have been able to fine-tune the five base meats and six base sides recipes they have, to go from the small-scale, hobbyist backyard barbecuing to a large-scale commercial kitchen.

“We smoke chicken, pork for pulled pork, homemade German sausage, baby back ribs and brisket,” said Westby. “But unlike some smokehouses, where everything kind of tastes the same, our meats have really distinct flavor profiles — from the rubs we used on them, the way we prepare each of them, and the smoke they are smoked with.”

Westby, being a lifelong Winonan, said throughout the seven months Backwater BBQ has been open his focus has been to learn, adapt and listen as much as he can. He’s also committed to supporting all things local around him, whether it’s through using Bloedows’ rolls and other locally sourced ingredients or catering around town.

“We’re trying to learn from any criticism we get — could be something like ‘the coleslaw needs more tang,’ so we put more vinegar in it,” said Westby. “We’re always trying to improve. I think we have pretty solid recipes in place right now, and consistency and quality are what we’re always looking for. You know, I’m a local guy, it’s a local business trying to help other local companies and partner with them.”

Having no restaurant experience before this, Westby said, he was grateful for the support he’s received from his family, friends and the people who come in and enjoy the barbecue.

“Barbecue is a southern thing. So, all the sides and everything we really do has a southern influence,” said Westby. “I can’t tell you how many customers have come in and asked me where I’m from in the south to learn how to do all this. But I’m born and raised in Winona, with Norwegian ancestry.

“So, it’s come through from years of tweaking and learning. For example, a lot of places do Texas hot links for their sausage, I figured in Minnesota, why not do a German sausage instead? And that’s gone over pretty well.”

Starting a business during the coronavirus pandemic was scary, and that business stemming from a passion required a big leap of faith, said Westby. But he’s proud of how the business has turned out, the support from the community it has garnered, and what the future holds — potentially more catering and getting a food truck started.

“I was scared when we opened — I didn’t know if it was good. Then all of a sudden, we were selling out every day. One of the coolest times we sold out took only three hours, that’s our record. It was Good Friday, in a Catholic town, I couldn’t believe it,” said Westby with a chuckle. “Yeah, it just started as a passion and has turned into a livelihood. I’m smiling going to work every day.”


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