While other businesses are balancing the uncertainties of the pandemic, Louie Roybal already knows what he will be doing pretty much every day for the foreseeable future. His Hollister-based Louie’s Smokey Trails is almost fully booked through February 2022, catering events throughout San Benito County.
Roybal started Louie’s Smokey Trails about five years ago. It was quite a change from Roybal’s previous 17 years of working for Toyota.
“It was a corporate job up in the Bay Area,” he said, “and I was getting up at 4:00 in the morning, coming home at 8:00 or 8:30 in the evening. It wasn’t where my heart was. People who know me will tell you that if I get a chance to talk about food, I will ramble on and on. Ultimately, I knew I wanted to do something like this and I just fell into it, I suppose.”
Roybal began with handling the cooking for events at DeRose Winery, then began doing some occasional catering. He made a leap of faith when he bought a big commercial smoker and a barbecue pit—and things took off from there.
His collaborations with DeRose Winery have been a regular part of his business, including catering for their “Winemaker’s Dinner” event series, most recently on April 24. The menu included a five-course dinner with New York steaks and all the sides along with salad, scalloped appetizers, and smoked prime rib crostini. All the dishes were paired with DeRose wines.
Roybal sources from local farms and ranches, keeping a close eye on the quality of his ingredients.
“One of the things I wanted to do from the start was to provide a farm-to-table service,” he said. “I want to be able to go out to the farms and see the produce being picked for that night’s dinner. I want to be able to tell people exactly where the food they are eating came from, down to which patch of ground my brussels sprouts came from.”
Starting his own business came with new stresses, including training servers, managing staff, and learning to plan large-scale events.
“It has helped to have a solid team, and we work to make every job seamless,” Roybal said. “My people know what they’re doing, which makes my job easier. In hindsight, I wish I had done it years earlier. This is where my passion is and if you have ever had my food, it will tell you my story, which is that I love every part of my job.”
Roybal does not advertise, relying on word of mouth and the regular customers he has gained over the years. And he does not do events like barbecue festivals.
“I chose not to do things that are more on the public side,” he said. “There is a little more freedom I get when I am doing private events or venues. I get more private time when I am not tied into that kind of schedule and I want to be able to get away and have family time. And I like the freedom I get in scheduling my own dates, to be able to pick and choose jobs.”
The largest job he has taken on was the 2018 San Benito County Rodeo, serving over 2,000 people in two days. He has handled other events at Bolado Park as well, including the Women’s Breakout Roping.
Roybal has done elaborate plated-and-served dinners for as many as 300 people, with his record being a buffet-style dinner for 500 people at the annual Cattlemen’s Association feast.
Louie’s Smokey Trails does job site lunches, and many local businesses such as Swank Farms, Opa Farms, Guerra Farms, and the San Benito Cattle Company, have become regular customers.
“We have him at our brandings and he does a really great job for us,” said Jessica Brem of M&J French Ranch. “Louie is a really great guy, a great friend, and very reliable. He would drop anything for a client. The food is delicious and consistent—our cowboys love the thick-cut bacon and their sliders, but to be honest, we like it all.”
The bacon is one of his signature appetizers, and, according to Roybal is a favorite of South County ranchers. It is made with craft meat that he prepares himself, which is smoked and grilled, and then served with a blue cheese dressing. The result is melt-in-your-mouth tender and nearly irresistible.
His appetizer menu includes pulled pork and lamb sliders, honey shrimp, and grilled links. The main course meat options include smoked prime brisket, smoked salmon, grilled steaks, barbecue chicken quarters, and baby back ribs.
Having all available bookings almost filled for the next 10 months leaves Roybal wondering how he can take advantage of the popularity of his catering.
“The business has grown its own legs,” Roybal said. “It has turned into a monster and it has never slowed down. We know we are just scratching the surface and we are starting to work on some new things, just trying to grow it more.”
Despite his success, Roybal has a down-to-earth attitude towards his business and his customers.
“We do this to be able to give somebody food that is really amazing, that they can enjoy from the first bite,” he said. “That is the biggest compliment. The pleasure of watching people who are enjoying my food—that’s why I do this. When I first started, I had no idea how it was going to go and I am amazed at the continued support we are seeing from everyone we have worked with.”
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