The Pit Master
Grilliant Foods Cooks Up Savory Meats
Writer / Jon Shoulders
Photographer / Ron Wise
Ernie Verbarg is dedicated to barbecue. Not only is he the owner of Grilliant Foods on West 96th Street, but he’s also the sole pit master and spends almost every day smoking up savory pulled pork, ribs, beef brisket and more for the establishment’s restaurant and catering customers. Heck, he even has a bunk bed in the back of the restaurant for the occasional brief respite during lengthy shifts.
“I have four smokers on hand, and which ones I use depends on how much I’m smoking and what I’m making,” Verbarg says. “A lot of barbecue places have multiple people running the pit and with that sometimes you achieve different flavors. Here, I can maintain a consistency and quality of taste. In that way we’re able to get the customer the same level of quality over and over.”
A veteran of the food industry, Verbarg served as a meat cutter for O’Malia’s Food Market for 25 years, and after receiving a barbecue smoker from his wife and daughter for Father’s Day back in 2010, he found smoking came easily and discovered a natural love for the endeavor.
“My family started asking if I wanted to do competitions and at first I didn’t, but by 2013 I had signed up for the State Fair competition and did pretty good,” Verbarg recalls. “Each year I got a little better, and eventually I thought, ‘Why not open a restaurant?’”
In 2014 Verbarg took home Grand Champion honors at the Indiana State Fair barbecue cook-off, and not long after he moved into the space on 96th Street formerly taken up by Taste of Europe, an Eastern European grocery, deli and restaurant. He opted to keep that establishment’s deli and grocery concepts to complement his own catering and restaurant services.
“Early on I was very involved with the Carmel High School marching band and music program through my daughter, and whenever they needed someone to cook and cater for an event there, I was the go-to person,” Verbarg recalls. “I also did some stuff for my church, and I think those things helped get the word out about what I was doing.”
Verbarg now works with seven importers based in Chicago to stock specialty candies and grocery items at Grilliant from European countries including Croatia, Poland, Germany and Serbia, and he also carries a variety of locally-sourced coffee, barbecue rubs and more. As for the restaurant, Verbarg says his pulled pork and beef brisket have been consistent best sellers so far, and the ribs aren’t far behind.
“The ribs I do are just fall-off-the-bone tender,” he says. “I make all my own sausages too, and I’m always trying to come up with different seasonings. Another big seller right now is my Zesty Hawaiian Brat. It’s got a little cheese and jalapeño in there and pineapple to give it that Hawaiian style.”
Hoosier pork tenderloin, buffalo shrimp, and sides like baked beans, cole slaw and smoked mac and cheese fill out the menu, along with a selection of wines and beers from local breweries including Sun King, Flat 12, Upland and 3 Floyds.
Verbarg also stocks an extensive selection of sauces, seasonings and barbecue supplies for sale, and Grilliant is capable of catering private events, social functions and corporate gatherings of all sizes.
This June marks three years since Verbarg opened his doors to the public, and he feels he’s only just begun in the barbecue game.
“I’ve increased the restaurant flow here eight to nine times what the original owner was doing,” he says. “Lunch time here is usually pretty packed. I’m still learning, but I do want to expand eventually. I want to start looking maybe in a year and a half or so for a larger location. We’ve grown a lot, and I anticipate we’ll continue to do so.”
Grilliant Foods is located at 4320 West 96th Street in Indianapolis. For more info, including restaurant and catering menus, call 317-s334-8797 or visit grilliantfoods.com.