A busy barbecue restaurateur goes glam.
by Jess McCuan . photos by Matt Rose
Her restaurants are two of the most talked-about eating establishments in Asheville. But Sabra Kelley actually prefers to avoid the limelight.
In 2006, Kelley and her husband Thomas Montgomery opened what’s become one of Asheville’s most popular barbecue joints, 12 Bones Smokehouse. The red-roofed rib shack in the River Arts District only serves weekday lunch, and if you’ve ever driven by, you know lunch is enough. A line of hungry people starts wrapping around the building at 11am. In 2008, they started up another 12 Bones location, which is open Saturdays, on Sweeten Creek Road in Arden.
The staples on the menu—slow-cooked pork, beef and smoky, decadent sides like potato salad and cheese grits—are solid. But the restaurant’s success was bolstered by a flurry of early publicity. In 2007, one of Montgomery’s creations, blueberry chipotle ribs, won the “Best Bites Challenge” on ABC’s Good Morning America. That led to write-ups in Southern Living, Our State and Garden & Gun magazines, and it didn’t hurt that, on his campaign trail in the fall of 2008, President Barack Obama stopped by for a meet-and-greet with 12 Bones customers and walked out carrying a sack of ribs. He and Michelle dined at 12 Bones again when they vacationed in Asheville in 2010.
Neither Montgomery nor Kelley could have imagined all that when they started 12 Bones. In fact, Kelley says, she and her husband are low-key, no-nonsense businesspeople—about as far as you get from publicity hounds. “It’s funny how some people strive to get into [the public eye]. That’s never been our style,” she says. “It finds us anyway.”
They met while attending the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont. After a brief stop in Chicago where they both did restaurant work, they moved to Denver for four years. Montgomery managed a restaurant, and Kelley worked in a wedding cake bakery. Now 38, Kelley laughs at the thought of working with cakes. Some members of the 12 Bones staff describe her as “militant” and “the hammer.” Still, she does not inspire fear in staffers the way her husband can: “I’m the cream puff of the two,” Kelley says.
If they run a tight ship, you might argue that it’s because their restaurants are so packed. At some point, they found they couldn’t keep up with the volume of sauce production (both restaurants serve unconventional barbecue sauces, like spicy Thai, or mango and strawberry-based concoctions). They kept the unusual sauces in-house and outsourced the making of traditional ones to a local company, Crooked Condiments.
This month, Montgomery is opening a new motorcycle dealership in Biltmore Village, Eurosport Asheville, to sell BMW and Husqvarna bikes, along with Vespa scooters. That means, for now, more of the running of 12 Bones will fall to Kelley—things like payroll, management and equipment issues. Eventually, she does want to make more time for herself. “I have 16 other hobbies I’d like to get into more,” she says. Those include canoeing and riding dirt bikes. In the meantime, she’s trying to keep things fresh at the restaurant, letting staffers add new side items or sauces to the menus when they get inspired.
For her makeover, we gave her an entirely fresh look, with clothing made by Asheville fashion designer and longtime boutique owner Constance Ensner. Kelley’s shoes came from the Constance consignment shop in Arden and her earrings from the chi-chi Asheville shop Maison Mary. “It’s been pleasantly refreshing,” she says of her new haircut and look. “People do think my hair looks cute. But when I came in the night of the makeover, my employees didn’t recognize me. Nobody had ever seen me in a dress.”
Sabra’s hair by Frankie Bolt of Eclipse Hair Salon in downtown Asheville. 828-285-0019 or www.eclipseasheville.com.
Makeup by Zack Russell of Makeup at the Grove Arcade. 828-505-4075 or www.makeupatga.com.
Clothing by Constance Ensner, styled by Mary James of Maison Mary in downtown Asheville. Vintage Carnaby Street bag from Maison Mary. 828-254-4040.
Shoes from Constance consignment boutique in Arden. 828-650-6566 or www.constanceboutique.com.
Special thanks to Leslie Myers.