River Road BBQ, lower right, had 8 feet of water inside when the Ohio River crested in February. | Photo by Luca Bianconcini

Closed for a month, River Road BBQ went back to serving again on Tuesday with a limited menu of brisket and pork. But it’s been a difficult road for owner Jon Gudmundsson and his employees.

The February flood, during which the river reached its highest level in 21 years, brought 8 feet of water into the small restaurant on River Road near the Louisville Water Tower. The only other time the Ohio River got into the restaurant, which opened six years ago, was in 2015. That flooding saw a foot and a half of water in the building.

About half an inch of mud covered the floors at River Road BBQ once the waters receded. | Courtesy of River Road BBQ

Gudmundsson said the restaurant will celebrate on Saturday, March 24, with what is being called the Big BBQ Bash, featuring half-slabs of “Baby, Welcome Back Ribs,” an item that hasn’t been served before at River Road BBQ.

In addition, a “50/50 Platter” will feature a half-pound sandwich made of half-pulled pork, half-brisket, with two sides. Gudmundsson said he hopes to have the full menu back by Saturday.

Days before the water made its way to River Road, Gudmundsson had all of his coolers and other heavy equipment moved into storage, leaving only tables and chairs. The smoker out front also remained in place.

“The first prediction on the flood was that it wasn’t even going to get in here,” Gudmundsson said in the now clean and sparkling restaurant, explaining why he left the furniture. “I won’t make that mistake again.”

The flooding necessitated replacing much of the drywall in the restaurant, along with replacing all the breakers in the building and other electrical work.

“We didn’t have to rewire, but we basically had to do everything else,” he said.

Gudmundsson said the river left about a half-inch of water on the floor, which wasn’t the worst of the damage. Nevertheless, the entire restaurant had to be cleaned, sanitized and repainted. Also, the smoker required plenty of work before it was fit for cooking meat again.

Employee Kylie Emerson was in charge of cleaning the smoker, and she said it was roughly a two-day process that involved repeated pressure washing, sanitizing and then running smoke and heat through the smoker for a solid week to help burn off any lingering traces of river contamination.

“It was a process,” Emerson said. “Getting all the mud out took quite a while.”

River Road BBQ employe Kylie Emerson is hard at work in the meat smoker. | Courtesy of River Road BBQ

The total cost of getting the restaurant ready to open was about $13,000, Gudmundsson said, and he estimated revenue losses in excess of $50,000 during the closure.

But he said “good neighbors” were a positive part of the ordeal, with Ed Miller of Falls City Boat storing the restaurant equipment free of charge, and River House Restaurant & Raw Bar sending free meals for the employees and contractors while they worked on the remodel.

Among other nearby neighbors, Captain’s Quarters Riverside Grill reopened on St. Patrick’s Day after having at least as much water inside as River Road BBQ. Kingfish and River House are not in the flood plain, but Cunningham’s Creekside still has not reopened. An employee who answered the phone there and asked not to be named said April 1 is a goal for reopening.

The restaurant was closed for a month during flooding and subsequent cleanup. | Courtesy of River Road BBQ

Despite the lengthy and expensive cleanup, the worst thing about the entire process, Gudmundsson said, was simply the waiting.

“You wait for the water to rise,” he said. “You wait for the water to recede. You wait to see how much damage has been done. You wait for the damage to be repaired. You wait for things that are mostly out of your control. It’s not a fast process.”

The loss of control also can be humbling.

“Nobody likes to feel you’re not in charge,” Gudmundsson said, “and with Mother Nature, you’re not in charge.”

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Kevin Gibson
Kevin Gibson tackles the 3Rs — retail, restaurants, real estate — plus, economic development. He loves bacon, loathes cucumbers and once interviewed Yoko Ono. Check out his books, “Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft” and “100 Things to do in Louisville Before You Die.” He has won numerous awards for his work but doesn’t know where most of them are now. In his spare time, he plays in a band called the Uncommon Houseflies.Email Kevin at [email protected]