Cathie Anderson

Anderson: Bears linebacker, childhood pal to open barbecue joint in Elk Grove

Although Elk Grove’s Double Nickel Smokehouse owes its name to the No. 55 on Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs’ jersey, it is Briggs’ childhood friend Cameron Lee who owns the majority stake in the restaurant. The two business partners will greet diners Monday at the restaurant, 3443 Laguna Blvd.

“We met as children on the greenbelt in Vintage Park, which is right off Calvine Road in Elk Grove-Florin,” Lee said. “I think I was 8 or 9 at the time. We were playing, being kids, and we ended up connecting. From there, we ended up playing pee-wee football together, junior midgets, midgets, all the way through high school.”

As children, Lee said, he and Briggs would talk about businesses it would be fun to own. Restaurants were on the list, along with bowling alleys. Lee and Briggs kicked off their business partnership by acquiring Strikes Family Entertainment Center in January 2012. Lee had been working as the food and beverage director at the bowling center, and when the opportunity to buy it arose, he talked it over with his wife, Victoria Lee, and Briggs.

The Lees, sweethearts since high school, thought the timing was right. Cameron Lee had a business degree from University of Arkansas, Monticello. He had risen through the Paragary chain to become a general manager at Cafe Bernardo in Davis. He had also been in management at the Melting Pot in Rocklin and the California Pizza Kitchen at Arden Fair Mall. He had worked in the banking industry, and more importantly, he had been at Strikes long enough to figure out the pitfalls and promises of the business. The couple took their savings and merged the money with a 20-percent investment from Briggs and a bank loan.

The bowling center had come with an attached restaurant, Coach’s Bar & Grill. The two longtime friends had an idea for a barbecue joint, Lee said, but he wanted to focus on learning the bowling business and improving security. Residents had complained about the number of fights at the establishment under previous management, so Lee contracted with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputies for special patrols on Friday and Saturday nights.

Comfortable in his new role and ready to take on a fresh challenge, Lee shut down Coach’s and began building the smokehouse that he and Briggs had conceived. They will employ 60 people at the restaurant. That’s in addition to the 80 staffers at the bowling alley. The new hires include general manager Jason Kirby, who moved to the region recently from New York City, where he was on the management team for Ai Fiori Restaurant and Trattoria dell’Arte. The Double Nickel’s head chef is Michael Jackson, whose 22-year career includes a stint at Thunder Valley Casino, where he worked with Briggs’ mom, Brenda Briggs. They collaborated on some Double Nickel recipes.

Jackson is flavoring Double Nickel’s menu with spices and cooking techniques he learned at Slocum House, The Grange and Indian casinos around the nation. He’s slow-roasting grits with cheese, bell pepper, onion and Gulf Coast shrimp. He’s bronzing his catfish and adding a light lemon vinaigrette to brighten it up. His pork ribs sit in the smoker for hours, and he teasingly apologizes when the meat falls off the bone.