When Winston Hill would tend to the smokers overnight at his first restaurant, the Barbecue Pit, his two daughters would claim a booth as a bed.
“We grew up in the restaurant business and started working long before it was legal, busing tables, especially serving food on Thanksgiving with Daddy Bruce on the street,” said Hill’s daughter Hovlyn Hill-May. “Our history is barbecue. We grew up going on road trips to pick up wood from East Texas and Arkansas, where we would get cottonwood, Applewood and hickory.”
Hill was an All-Pro offensive tackle who played 15 seasons and helped protect Joe Namath on the way to the New York Jets’ Super Bowl victory in 1969. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020.
Prior to that 1968 season, Hill, a Texas native, moved his family to Denver. And when he retired from football in 1978, he was able to follow his dream of opening his own barbecue restaurant, apprenticing under Colorado’s legendary pitmaster and philanthropist “Daddy” Bruce Randolph.
Hill opened the Barbecue Pit on Eighth and Colorado Boulevard in 1979 on his daughter Heather’s sixth birthday.
“The restaurant was our life and our livelihood as a family,” said Heather Hill.
The Barbecue Pit closed in 1988, but Hill went on to open Winston’s in Larimer Square and later Winston Hill’s Ribs, now known as Winston’s Smoke BBQ, with his business partner Ron Mitchell in Centennial 1991. He also was a concessionaire first at the old Stapleton airport and then at Denver International Airport.
“Our dad saw food as an opportunity to serve others,” Heather said. “He fed thousands and thousands of people out of his restaurants. He volunteered with so many of his community organizations, like the Denver Indian Center and the Boys and Girls Club, and was a chaplain with the Denver Broncos.”
When Hill passed away at 74 in 2016, Heather and Hovlyn teamed up with pitmaster Mitchell to take over Winston’s Smoke BBQ and his airport ventures.
“We weren’t ready to just close up shop just because he wasn’t there physically,” Hovlyn said. “We were well aware that being a restaurateur is not glamorous. It’s hard work, it’s intentional, and if it isn’t, it shows. We wanted to be a part of what we grew up with, which is why we took it on. We knew what it entailed.”
But after seven years, Hill’s daughters are ready to carry on their father’s legacy in a new way. At the end of January, they plan to close Winston’s Smoke BBQ, located at 5090 E. Arapahoe Road.
“When our dad was inducted into the National Football Hall of Fame in 2020, we thought that was a great time to actually kind of refurbish the restaurant and do a whole new start in his honor,” Heather said. “But right after that, the pandemic hit. And on top of that, DIA has been undergoing extensive renovations for the last few years, and ultimately, that ended up taking over the sites where his restaurants were in the airport, which put more pressure on the small takeout restaurant. So all of these things kind of came together at the same time, which led to our decision to close.”
Heather is a classical singer who has performed on Broadway, and splits her time between Colorado and New York, while Hovlyn is a full-time teacher in northern Colorado, which makes it hard for both of them to be present, hands-on owners like their father. And although they won’t be using the restaurant as a vehicle for service any longer, they have started the “Finish like a Pro” scholarship in his name at Hill’s alma mater, Texas Southern University.
“Finish like a pro” was one of Hill’s mottos, which he always passed on to the kids he coached. The scholarship, for which the sisters have so far raised $70,000, is available for juniors and seniors at TSU majoring in sports and science-related fields. Eventually, the Hills sisters would like to bring the scholarship to Colorado.
“A lot of freshmen have a lot of support getting into college, and then they get to the third year, and they may or may not have funds to finish,” Heather said. “We wanted to aim this at juniors and seniors to help them get over that finish line and finish like a pro, like our dad.”
When Winston’s Smoke BBQ closes at the end of January, the Hill sisters will miss the constant reminders of their father hanging on the walls, the easy access to their “favorite brisket in the world” and, of course, the memories they built over the years, starting with the secrets they swapped back and forth in their respective booths (or beds).
“One of the wonderful things about Winston’s Smoke is, because we grew up in the community, a lot of these people who were frequenting dad’s restaurant were my parents’ age,” Hovlyn said. “So we’ve watched the community kind of age, as well as bring younger, new families into this established neighborhood. Some of our regular customers were able to see how the menu and restaurant changed over time, but they still kept coming in and ordering what they were used to. We became part of the community’s culture, and I will miss that.”
“Just because Winston’s Smoke is the closing chapter on Winston’s long history of restaurants, I know that barbecue will still be an important part of our lives,” Heather said. Even though the restaurant is closing, “Ron (Mitchell) isn’t going anywhere, and I don’t plan to be giving up brisket anytime soon.”
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