Family, friends help Montville BBQ owner during second bout with cancer
Montville — Kelly Walker, who brought his slow-cooked labor of love, Big Belly Kelly's BBQ, to town about a year ago, got a visit last week from a customer he knows only as "Mr. Bill."
"I don't even know his last name," Walker said, describing Mr. Bill as one of many loyal customers who staff know on a first-name-and-order-basis. "He's a supporter. He comes in and has breakfast every day. It's not a lot of money but it's the fact that he's coming in. We already know what he wants and his bill is going to be $7.44."
Mr. Bill, Walker said, had been asking about him, because the familiar BBQ owner hadn't been around lately at the Route 163 restaurant. Walker, 50, finds himself fighting cancer for the second time, and along with Mr. Bill's bedside visit to L+M Memorial Hospital, Walker says the support he's received from customers, friends and family "blows my mind."
His mother, Martha — who inspired him to become a cook — has visited from Hamden a few times, while his wife, Sandra, runs the restaurant along with a group of longtime friends, including a father-son chef tandem, Derrick Smith and Jerrod Loy-Smith.
"We've got family and people trying to be supportive and I'm just trying to hang in there," said Walker, who considered shuttering the BBQ restaurant in August when a routine checkup revealed his colon cancer had metastasized to his liver.
While undergoing treatment, he again considered closing when a tree fell near the property in September, knocking over power lines and forcing him to restock spoiled food "from top to bottom" out of his own pocket while he battles his insurance company.
"I'm not interested in making a whole lot of money," said Walker, a 30-plus year employee of Waterford Country School whose dream business for more than 20 years has blended food trucks, catering, fairs and most recently a restaurant on Fort Hill Road in Groton before moving to the former home of Mel's Diner last November. "I'm just interested in paying the bills, keeping the lights on and keeping the place running."
On Friday, Sandra Walker sat at a table shuffling through a heap of paperwork as Loy-Smith readied a pulled pork sandwich and fries. She reported that doctors cleared Walker to leave the hospital on Thursday and that he was resting at home. The chemotherapy, she said, had done its job and shrunk his cancer, and doctors were hopeful to perform surgery relatively soon.
When told that her husband gave her most of the credit for running the shop in his absence, she replied with a smile, "That's good."
"I'm learning to enjoy it," she said. "It was never my thing but I'm getting better and better at it and I like the interaction with the people. The people in this neighborhood are incredible and welcoming."
Walker, who frequently posts positive Facebook live videos as a mix of advertising and, lately, health updates, called social media his "window to the world."
His friend, Waterford Country School co-worker and restaurant server Dawn Dean has used social media and word of mouth to spark a comedy show to benefit Walker. The show, featuring Krystal Dyer, Mo Green and Darren Rivera, is scheduled at the Montville Polish Club on 85 Maple Ave. at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11. For tickets, contact DDean@waterfordcs.org or order online at bit.ly/Comedy4Kelly.
"When I found out he was going through cancer again, I had to do something," Dean said. "Every time I walk in Big Belly Kelly's, it gives me goosebumps. I feel like I'm home. The people there, the way it looks and smells. I feel like I'm home."
Dean said sometimes people stay away when they hear the word "cancer," fearing the patient is exhausted and needs time, space and rest.
"But we're open," said Dean, who noted she, too, is a cancer survivor. "We're here. We're seeing us all pull together to keep this dream going for him."
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