Anthony Marquez has been managing Smokin’ M’s, at 7507 Roosevelt Road, Forest Park, for over a year. After a fire in early March temporarily shut down business and COVID-19 delayed the restaurant’s ability to reopen, Marquez and the entire staff at the diminutive kitchen are thrilled to welcome back their loyal diners after a three-month closure.

“After the fire, coronavirus closures were frustrating to some people,” said Marquez, “but people kept calling and waiting for us to open.”

A large aquarium smoker has been at the center of Smokin’ M’s kitchen since opening 14 years ago. While rare aquarium smokers are uniquely tied to Chicago, they have the reputation of being temperamental and labor-intensive to use.

“Because of our aquarium smoker, we operate a little differently than other restaurants,” said Vince Maccio, a member of Smokin’ M’s ownership team. “We are not just throwing hot dogs in water; we are cooking on an open fire indoors and it can be challenging to maintain.”

The fire broke out during an especially busy day, igniting the fully loaded smoker grill and damaging its signature smokestack. The unfortunate fire sparked a remodel designed to “fire-proof” the kitchen, but open-flame cooking will continue as the aquarium smoker is finally back up and running.

COVID-19 “decimated” staffing roles at Smokin’ M’s and halted all revenue streams. Owner Jimmy Maccio kept all five full-time employees on the payroll for the first month of his restaurant’s extended closure but could not continue the practice as the closure extended into a second month. Thankfully, their longtime employees all came back when Smokin’ M’s reopened in May.

“We are lucky to have a good following on Facebook,” said Maccio. “We got a really good response and that was big relief.”

Smokin’ M’s is once again turning out their homemade fare — from spice rubs to pie crusts — but safety has become a key ingredient as the BBQ joint welcomes back guests. A plastic divider keeps customers and staff safe, and employees wear gloves, masks and have daily temperature checks.

“We hope things return to normal,” said Maccio. “For now, we want to make sure our staff are limiting contacts, remain healthy and are ready to go.”

Unlike the most modern indoor smokers that use 3-4 logs to flavor meat before finishing in an oven-like environment, Smokin’s M’s relies on wood to fire meats from start to finish. Rib tips, chicken and hot links are especially suited to cooking in an aquarium smoker making them popular menu items.

Marquez was mentored as a manager by Maccio directly and earned his role as manager because of his dedication, reliability, and willingness to adapt. He serves as cook, cashier and purchaser. He feels especially proud of Smokin’ M’s wings and rib tips.

“When people find Smokin’ M’s, it’s usually because they were looking for something better,” said Marquez. “When they get here, they can taste our real cooking.”

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