Trips to the corner butcher shop in his Uniontown, Pennsylvania neighborhood were a regular part of Criss Smiley’s childhood in the Pittsburgh suburb. His family, like many others, bought the meats that dominated their dinner tables from the local butcher, not from a grocery store.
“You’d go to the butcher to get your meat,” Criss says. “It was in your neighborhood, on the corner.”
Criss’s great-grandfather, James V. Brothers, started out as a butcher before he ran Union Supply for freight coal.
His family bought the butcher block from their neighborhood shop, a memento well worth the damage it did to Criss’s wagon on the walk back to their house. That bulky butcher block, with all its dents and dings from decades of chopping, now sits in Criss’s meat shop in Pelham, a reminder of the days when the best cuts of meat came from a small building on the corner of your street.
In a sense, that’s exactly why Criss and his wife, Jennifer, opened Smiley Brothers Specialty Foods in October 2017: to preserve the practice of buying your food from a trusted merchant, a friend. That and a dash of nostalgia for home, Criss says, the place of “coal and Coke.”
“It’s something Criss has always wanted to do and had a passion for,” Jennifer says. “We wanted to fit into the community.”
Criss and Jennifer met while working in the hospitality industry in Birmingham in the 1990s. After more than 30 years in the industry, Criss retired from his job as an executive chef and director of food and beverage at a downtown hotel to open his shop.
What started as a hunt for rental spaces ended in Criss and Jennifer partnering with the accounting firm she works for to build an 8,000-square-foot facility on Huntley Parkway. Criss’s shop comprises roughly 2,000 square feet of the building, the accounting firm occupies another space, and the remaining space is vacant for future tenants.
“The goals were initially to bring to the community this food and express my passion,” Criss says, “And at the same time, have fun in retirement. We’re members of this community, we know this community and this is unique to this community.”
Designed by Hendon & Huckestein Architects, the building resembles an old train station on the outside and an old-company-store-meets-corner-butcher-shop on the inside. According to Jennifer, more than 1,000 people followed the facility’s construction process and Smiley Brothers’ opening plans on YouTube.
“We wanted to be one of the best-looking buildings on the block. We needed to be something that was eye-catching and very attractive.”
Inside the shop, Criss and Jennifer have incorporated special family pieces like the butcher block and vintage items they’ve found at antique markets. One of Jennifer’s favorite finds has been an old hotel mail cubby, a piece that reminds her of hers and Criss’s years in hospitality and ties in with the vintage company store theme. The tin near the ceiling was salvaged from one of the oldest houses on the Pelham-Chelsea line. The brick work was done by the couple’s son, Ben.
The shop’s name is as much about family as the interior. The names Smiley and Brothers are family names for Criss (his middle name is Brothers, too), and Criss’s brother has helped with the business side of the shop.
Smiley Brothers offers corned beef pickled in-house; house-cured and smoked pastrami and bacon; deli ham and roast beef; custom cuts of prime-grade beef with an in-house meat grinder; a special blend of brisket; dry-age steaks; and other fresh cuts of meat.
“We do deli platters and catering,” Criss says. “We do prepared meals ready to heat to-go. All that is made from our beef, pork and chicken.”
At the cheese counter, customers can choose from a wide range of local and international cheeses made with sheep milk, goat milk and cow milk. Criss also tries to keep raw, pasteurized, soft and hard varieties to appeal to different palates.
“We go from 50 miles away to 10,000,” he says. “We make sure it’s well-rounded and unique. If you don’t know what it is you like, we’re going to help you with it.”
Jennifer and her coworkers are regular taste-testers for Criss, especially for the cheeses.
In addition to made-to-order deli sandwiches (Criss recommends the hoagie, muffuletta, pastrami or club) Smiley Brothers offers pre-made meals to go for families in need of an easy dinner. Meals such as the twice-baked potato, filet tips and kabobs are popular, and the meatballs marinara meal recently won best entrée at Taste of Pelham. Customized meal packages for small or large groups of people are available. The shop carries regional products including TruBee Honey from Tennessee, and olive oil and balsamic vinegar from Simply Infused in Birmingham.
“We try to make sure we’re more than just the Saturday afternoon cookout,” Criss says.
Smiley Brothers is not a typical restaurant with indoor seating, but hungry customers can sit at a picnic table outside the shop if they just can’t wait to bite into their sandwiches.
“It’s more of an experience to come in than a shopping trip,” Jennifer says. “The staff will tell you as much or as little as you want to know about the food, about the store, about the décor. It’s more like a place to come and visit with people you know. We love that. Both of us being from the hospitality industry, that’s what we love the most. I’m just glad we can do it in Shelby County. We have roots in this community.”
The shop’s proximity to Interstate 65 allows people from different areas to access it more easily. And customers can call in their orders and pick them up at a drive-through window.
Criss’s motto is: “I don’t tell you it’s good; you tell me it’s good. It’s only good if you say it is.”
“We try to let everybody know that we’re here for everybody. We’re not just the fancy or expensive butcher at the end of the street,” Criss says. “We handle it with care and love and respect, and we buy the best product we can buy. It’s the best combination.”