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Smokler’s BBQ: IM business expanding with restaurant sites

Business Showcase

BRENT OKLER HAS converted the former Double D restaurant in Aurora, Wis., to Northern Border Grill & Pub, offering a sit-down setting for his Smokler’s BBQ menu. (Marguerite Lanthier/Daily News photo)

AURORA, Wis. — Brent Okler has added a restaurant to his Smokler’s BBQ businesses.

Northern Border Grill & Pub has opened in the former Double D location at 724 County Road N in Aurora. The business for now operates from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, but Okler plans to expand the hours once his liquor license is approved later this month.

Okler launched his Smokler’s BBQ food truck in 2016, then two years later set up the Smokler’s drive-thru at 701 N. Stephenson Ave. in Iron Mountain, the former site of Nina’s and Bada Bing Pasta. He plans to continue both those operations, with the food truck mostly used for special events and catering, and the drive-thru serving from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

And if that isn’t enough to keep him busy, Okler has been renovating another restaurant site on Stephenson Avenue in downtown Iron Mountain. Work will proceed over the winter, with a tentative opening set for late May.

Okler said his customers requested a restaurant setting. “People were always asking to come and sit down and eat a rack of ribs and that was always the goal — to open a restaurant,” he said.

BRENT OKLER AND his manager, Alix Peterson, behind the bar in the Northern Border Grill & Pub restaurant in Aurora, Wis. (Maguerite Lanthier/Daily News photo)

Okler developed an interest in barbecue after years of traveling throughout the country for Iron Mountain-based CCI Systems and M.J. Electric.

“They brought me all over the place. I was always seeking out barbecue,” he said.

His skills are mostly self-taught, though he did train with a couple of people while developing his techniques and preferences.

“I had a friend in San Antonio who showed me a lot of different stuff on his smoker,” Okler said. “Otherwise (it was) just playing around and learning … throwing stuff in the garbage. I threw a lot of stuff in the garbage, but it’s been a long time since I did.”

His specialty is ribs and beef brisket, using a Texas-style dry rub. “Those are my favorite to cook, anyway,” Okler said.

Brent Okler and his barbecue pit smoker, located in the Smokler’s BBQ trailer outside Northern Border Grill & Pub, his new restaurant in Aurora, Wis. (Marguerite Lanthier/Daily News photo)

His menu is filled with unique items, such as loaded tots — tater tots available with a variety of toppings. “At this place, a lot of appetizers and entries are a lot different than other places,” Okler noted. “Brisket mac tacos — those are big sellers. You can’t find them anywhere.”

Thursdays and Fridays tend to be his busiest nights, along with Tuesdays at the drive-thru because of the loaded tot special that day.

His menu at the restaurant also includes burgers, pizza and fish frys on Fridays.

The business has eight employees and he hasn’t experienced the problem of not being able to find staff. The three who work at the drive-thru site are doing well, so he hasn’t had to run much between locations.

Most of the cooking is done at the Aurora facility in a barbecue pit smoker that can handle 300 pounds of meat or a 200-pound whole pig. The new facility in Iron Mountain will have an even larger smoker, Okler said.

The Aurora restaurant can be reached at 715-589-8011.

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