Mike Trickler refers to himself as an artist. While some prefer oils or pastels, Mike favors brisket and ribs, showcasing his craft at The Barbeque Barn, an Omaha food truck. His masterpiece, a brisket sandwich, is dubbed the “Haystacker.” It's a marriage of Mike's beef and sauce with wife Chris' crunchy coleslaw.
“It's a true artisan sandwich,” Mike said. “From the very beginning to the very end, it's my hands (making the sandwich).”
The Tricklers opened The Barbeque Barn in April 2011 after the 55-year-old Mike, a trucker for more than 20 years, retired from driving.
It has, however, turned into way more than a job. It's welcome income. But it's also a way to keep memories alive, to give him purpose.
It's a way to honor Chris, the woman who inspired him to start the business and pushed him to keep it running when she no longer could help.
It's his legacy to his wife of 29 years, who died of cancer in December.
After taking time off from truck driving, Mike decided not to go back — he felt like he had lost his niche as a trucker. So his wife suggested that he take advantage of the thing he knew best: barbecue.
Mike got his first crack at the art of smoking meat in Spokane, Wash., in 1985, when a coworker introduced him to smoked trout. From there, he devoted himself to the hobby — one that took him decades to master.
“When I first started, I could've made a pair of boots out of that meat,” he said.
But Mike steadily got better. He fashioned his first smoker out of a 1948 Frigidaire refrigerator, knocking the compressor off the top and punching a pair of holes in its place, and started studying barbecue books and experimenting.
He worked his way up from a family recipe for beef jerky to the finer art of brisket and ribs.
Five years before launching his business, Mike found a dusty white bread truck for sale near 72nd and L Streets. It was essentially picked clean except for the chassis and the raccoon living inside.
He intended to put in a 6-cylinder motor from a Ford pickup and resell the truck, but his wife convinced him otherwise. Why not use it as a food truck?
So he got to work.
Over the next few years, he fixed, cleaned and converted the truck. He enlisted some of his and Chris' seven children to help.
Kelly Lane, a son from Chris' first marriage, did electrical and plumbing work on the truck. Lane estimated that he spent 80 hours or so helping, a minuscule number compared to the hours Mike logged.
“It was a long process,” Lane said. “He got discouraged quite a few times and it sat for a while. Then he'd get some encouragement and it would go again.”
Lane said his mom thought it never would be finished, “but when it got done, she was very supportive.”
In April 2010, Chris convinced Mike to open up for business.
They had coleslaw, baked beans and meat all ready to go, but they needed to tie it all together.
On opening day, Mike created both his regular barbecue sauce and his Carolina-style vinegar sauce in less than an hour, primarily on instinct. The same day, he invented the Haystacker.
“The first day he was in there, he was like a chicken with his head cut off,” Lane said. “Everything was so overwhelming to him, but he was so happy.”
The truck became a mainstay in the Harbor Freight Tools parking lot near 90th and Maple Streets before moving last year to its current home at Goodies gas station near 90th and Ohio Streets.
At first, Chris spent a lot of time helping Mike at the truck, gradually easing him into independence while she focused on her job as a manager for the Metropolitan Utilities District.
“As soon as she saw that I was quite capable of running it on my own, she let me handle it,” Mike said.
But through it all, Chris was an inspiration. With a degree in management from Bellevue University and her work experience, she helped her husband become an outgoing salesman.
Without her help, Mike said, he would have been lost.
“It took me three months just to break out of my shell. I was a loner,” he said.
Chris first was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1993. She fought and it went into remission. The cancer returned in March of 2012, attacking her lymph nodes.
Mike's biggest booster, the person who encouraged him in his struggle to create a business, now needed a boost herself.
Doctors discovered Chris's cancer after inspecting a tumor in her lower back on her birthday. They advised her to undergo chemotherapy, but she refused at first because of the cost.
Just like Chris motivated Mike to start the food truck, Mike helped motivate Chris once he convinced her to begin treatments.
But Chris got worse. Mike spent more and more time with her and less on the truck.
“It didn't bother him that he wasn't with the Barn, because he was with my mom,” Lane said.
Chris insisted that her husband remain committed to the barbecue business they had worked for almost a decade to perfect. If he quit, they'd lose everything they worked for for so long.
So Mike called an old friend.
Tony Miller, a carpenter who met the Tricklers in Spokane in 1978, flew to Omaha with three days notice on Nov. 14 to help run the truck. Mike, who once dated Miller's sister in the 1970s, gave him a place to stay in his basement and a crash course on barbecue. Miller agrees with Mike's assessment that smoking meat is a creative pursuit.
“There's an art right there that he has,” Miller said.
On Dec. 14, Miller took over the reins of the Barbeque Barn solo for the first time.
That day, Mike was attending his wife's baptism.
Her battle was coming to an end. Doctors had placed her in hospice, hoping to make her last months as comfortable as possible.
Two days after the baptism fulfilled her wish to become closer to God, Chris died.
The pain she described to doctors as “13” on a one-to-10 scale had passed. The agonizing back aches and chemotherapy that had plagued her since doctors told her about the recurrent cancer now were over.
Up to the day she died, Chris had pushed him to keep the barbecue business alive. So when the fight was finally over, that's all Mike could think to do. Miller's still helping, though he plans to return to Spokane.
“I could sit around the house and just drudge about what happened in my life, but I've got to get going,” Mike said. “Nobody's going to give you any handouts. Just keep going. It'll get better. It's bound to.”
Support poured in to the company's Facebook page, where Mike still signs almost every post “Christine, Tony, Mike.” Neighbors offered to lend a hand, with one even driving to Kansas City to pick up equipment for the truck, asking only for gas money.
Gestures from his customers and friends — he says they're one and the same — amazed Mike.
“This truck is God-led,” he said. “I don't have the smarts or the ability to do what's been done on this truck.”
Taped inside near the serving window is a Bible verse, Hebrews 13:2: “Don't forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it.”
Mike remembers his mother picking people up off the street and feeding them on at least three occasions. He has tried to emulate that, offering a free sandwich or warm conversation.
On Jan. 4, Mike and Miller returned to their barbecue home, armed with racks of applewood smoked pork ribs. It didn't take long for customers to catch on, though business is slower in the winter than the summer.
Aside from dealing with frozen pipes and blizzards, Mike has been out almost every day since then, barring Sundays.
“It's been trying (for Mike),” Lane said. “Not a lot of customers would show up and he would get discouraged. Then he'd have a day where he would have a bunch of customers and he'd be on top of the world.”
While the meat changes day to day, ranging from brisket to brats and the occasional turkey leg, one thing is always on the menu: Chris Trickler's homemade coleslaw and baked beans.
In January, about a month after Chris died, Mike and Lane put a vinyl sticker above the windshield, officially naming the truck “Mrs. Christine.”
Though Mike can't guarantee he'll be in the barbecue business forever, it's the best way he can think of to honor his wife for now.
“Life just throws you a curve sometimes,” Mike said. “Sometimes you bounce back and sometimes you don't. I'm not saying I'm gonna make it to the next week, but I'm hanging tough.”
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