Birmingham takes great pride in our food culture, which makes it even more impressive when a rising chef causes the city to explode in a tastebud frenzy. Charles Pilot accomplished this and more with the opening of the Fat Charles BBQ truck earlier this year. Aided by his wife Andrea, their three children, his brother and business partner Christopher, and hundreds if not thousands of passionate supporters that he refers to as “family” - Fat Charles shows no signs of slowing down.
Charles and Christonpher grew up in a family full of people who loved cooking to uplift their loved ones. Family get-togethers at his grandparents’ home in Pine Level, Alabama would feature shrimp and gumbo from his Gulf Coast-living uncle, barbeque made by his aunts and dad, and New Orleans relatives bringing up a medley of flavors from the bayou state. “Cooking has always been one of those things that brought everybody together,” Charles explains. Growing up, the Pilot brothers didn’t always realize how lucky they were to be surrounded by so much great cooking, but soon the blessings would become clear.
When Charles turned 18, he began working in the beverage industry. He had a passion for food but didn’t see it as a way to make money. That changed with one fateful cookout in 2017 after Charles and his friends rented a pavilion at Oak Mountain State Park to host a big barbecue. One of the people there happened to be an esteemed Kansas City Barbecue Society judge. He was surprised to hear Charles wasn’t part of the competition circuit after trying his smoked meats and quickly encouraged him to pursue cooking as a money-making endeavor.
Charles listened and started taking the necessary steps towards entrepreneurship. “It started off doing a couple slabs for some church members, then everyone else caught wind of it and it just took off.” Things continued to accelerate, culminating with Charles buying the truck last September after serious discussions with his family and changes at his work encouraged him to make the jump towards full-time chefing. “As I was able to gain capital through working those years, I was able to afford to give myself the opportunity,” shares Charles on using his full-time job to pursue his dream, adding “I wish I would have done it sooner, but you know everything happens for a reason.”
The current truck is more suited for tacos, burgers, and wings than barbecue, and fans are finding these changes to be a mouth-watering adventure. Birria tacos, burgers, and their famous 5 Mile sauce are consistent food truck favorites. Fat Charles claims to have two sets of fans - “Before Tacos” and “After Tacos”. Their pre-food truck fans remember shrimp po’boys and slabs of barbecue, while taco fanatics discover these menu items while stalking Fat Charles BBQ’s social media and fantasize about what sorts of joy these dishes would bring. The Pilot brothers say fear not Birmingham–they will soon be bringing their famous chicken wings for the winter and have plans for a second BBQ-focused truck and hopefully a brick-and-mortar coming in the future.
The lines for Fat Charles reach impressive numbers. When his brother and co-workers comment in joking despair, Charles always responds that “I just hope everybody likes it.” A picture provides 1,000 words, and Fat Charles BBQ photographs certainly tell a tasty story, but the man behind it all feels that means nothing if the customer doesn’t feel like they got what they paid for when they visit his truck. Every customer to him is family, and they want to provide this experience for all of us.
“Birmingham is all I know,” says Charles, going on to share that he feels like he’s living the Alabama Dream. “I went from making meals for my family to being recognized and looked at as something special to my peers,” he reflects on his Magic City journey. “I feel like that’s something that only a person from Birmingham could understand.”
Lead Photo: Fat Charles