Big Belly Kelly brings BBQ to Montville

Kelly Walker puts together a tray of peach cobbler at Big Belly Kelly's on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, in Montville. Walker recently reopened the Groton restaurant at the former Mel's Diner location at 266 Route 163. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Kelly Walker puts together a tray of peach cobbler at Big Belly Kelly's on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, in Montville. Walker recently reopened the Groton restaurant at the former Mel's Diner location at 266 Route 163. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Montville — With a crew of friends and family busy behind him slow-smoking ribs and brisket and slathering pulled pork with his signature BBQ sauce, Kelly Walker looked around his new Montville eatery and admitted he recently told his wife, Sandra, "This is it," when it comes to the restaurant business.

"You know how Michael Jackson had the 'This Is It' tour? This is it for us," said Walker of Big Belly Kelly's BBQ, the newest iteration of a business Walker's operated for more than 20 years with a blend of food trucks, catering, fairs and most recently with a restaurant on Fort Hill Road in Groton.

A 31-year employee of Waterford Country School, Walker, 49, had hoped his homemade-style cooking at the Groton location would become his full-time gig. But a few weeks after moving in, in the winter of 2015, doctors told him he had colon cancer.

"It was a battle," he said, knocking on the table. "The chemo was the worst stuff in the world. When I was sick, my mom and family all came to cook and hold the place down. It's been a lot and we're trying to make things happen."

After family and friends helped manage the several-thousand-square-foot Groton spot for more than 18 months as he coped with cancer treatment, Walker found an attractive smaller spot, the former Mel's Diner on Route 163.

He described Montville as "almost like Mayberry," saying the customers visiting since his recent soft opening have not only taken to the brisket, but they've thanked him for reviving a business in town.

"We already have people who we know by name," he said. "People who come in really welcomed us. They say, 'Hi, how are you doing? I live down the street.' In this day and age, you don't see that."

Mel's Diner closed last year after police found more than 8 pounds of marijuana in mason jars and lasagna pans while investigating an open door at the location in May. A Norwich Superior Court judge gave Melanie Lamperelli, 39, a suspended sentence and two years of probation after she pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance in September.

Walker's crew renovated the place, bringing in new equipment, painting, and cutting the seating in half to about 20 to create space for catering and pig roast preparation. Walker's planning a pig roast when the warmer weather turns; he notes Secchiaroli Farm in Waterford has "the best pigs out, the freshest, best meat."

He also hopes to start delivering to the area soon and acknowledges he'll focus on takeout, because parking always has been tight for restaurants at the spot.

James Batchelder, who lives in Montville near Big Belly Kelly's, said he and his wife recently gave the place a shot in part because "it wasn't another pizza place in town."

"We both loved the mac and cheese and the mashed potatoes," Batchelder said, noting he also was a fan of Walker's specialty: fried chicken dipped in his homemade BBQ sauce. "The service was great. We will be going back there again."

Walker, who lives in Ledyard with his wife and children — a mix of one biological son and several adopted and foster children —  said it was his mother, Martha, who taught him how to "get into a kitchen and make some things happen."

After his parents split up, his mother worked and went to school and didn't have as much time to cook, so Walker filled in and cooked his spicy favorites, especially when his four siblings said they planned to make hot dogs or tuna fish.

"To hell with hot dogs," he says he told them. "Mom always roasted stuff. I want some real food. I'd call my mom and say, 'How'd you make this?' We want that homemade feel here."

b.kail@theday.com

A tray of fried chicken is seen at Big Belly Kelly's on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, in Montville. Owner Kelly Walker recently reopened the Groton restaurant at the former Mel's Diner location at 266 Route 163. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
A tray of fried chicken is seen at Big Belly Kelly's on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, in Montville. Owner Kelly Walker recently reopened the Groton restaurant at the former Mel's Diner location at 266 Route 163. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Jerrod Loy-Smith puts breaded chicken in the fryer at Big Belly Kelly's on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, in Montville. Owner Kelly Walker recently reopened the Groton restaurant at the former Mel's Diner location at 266 Route 163. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Jerrod Loy-Smith puts breaded chicken in the fryer at Big Belly Kelly's on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, in Montville. Owner Kelly Walker recently reopened the Groton restaurant at the former Mel's Diner location at 266 Route 163. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Business Snapshot

What: Big Belly Kelly's BBQ

Where:  266 Route 163, Montville

Owner: Kelly Walker

Hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday

Phone: (860) 326-5633

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