Mike De Los Santos spreading love through food in East Durham

Photo courtesy of Mike De Los Santos.

Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024

By Campbell Atterbury

When 16-year-old Mike De Los Santos took a playful jab at his boss’s way of making barbeque, his boss sighed and decided there was only one thing to do. Put him in charge. 

Just like that, De Los Santos was responsible for the food truck that day.

It was a cool spring afternoon at an antique auction in Richmond, Virginia, and the food truck was anticipating an influx of hungry customers. De Los Santos had only been working on the truck for about six months. 

A wave of nerves hit the young highschooler, but he shook them off. He knew he could step up to the daunting task of running the truck all by himself. 

And he did. By the end of the day, customers were pleading with the owner to let the teenager run the truck full-time. “I have a passion for food and the way it makes people feel,” said De Los Santos. “I think when you cook with that it comes out and people can tell the difference.”

Now, De Los Santos runs his own barbeque joint called Mike D’s BBQ in Durham. With eight employees, local beverages, long bench tables and a passion for community, he has established himself as a culinary pillar of East Durham.

But De Los Santos’ life did not always revolve around food.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Southern New Hampshire University, he worked for nonprofits, focusing on projects involving affordable housing, economic justice and monetary policy work. Simultaneously, he attended graduate school at Georgetown University, where he earned his master’s degree in real estate.

Between long weeks of juggling work and school and building a family, De Los Santos began to feel burned out. To decompress, De Los Santos gravitated to his passion for barbeque. Weekends became his haven as he delved into the art of crafting unique blends of sauces and rubs.

After frequently traveling for work, De Los Santos found himself eating at barbeque restaurants up and down the east coast. Consequently he created a blog to review barbeque restaurants and products. 

The blog quickly attained popularity and barbeque companies started sending De Los Santos their products to critique. Shortly after he had a cabinet at home brimming with an array of sauces and rubs. He evaluated them all. 

“As I was reviewing these companies I was like, you know, some are really good, some of these are awful,” De Los Santos said. “And if some of these can be this bad and still have products that people will buy, there is no reason why I at least shouldn’t attempt to do it.”

So he kept at it. Each weekend he would set aside some time to refine the recipes for his sauces and rubs. Courageously, he entered a competition for amateur sauce makers and secured an impressive third place overall and second place in his specific category. With these achievements under his belt, he envisioned the possibility of launching his own barbeque product line.

Until life came to a sudden halt with the birth and death of his son, Aaron.

“Life took a pause when my son was born,” De Los Santos said. “He lived for six months exactly. After he passed, in that year after that, I kinda struggled for a while. But then wanted to honor his memory and that was finally the push to start the business.”

Mike D’s BBQ began.

De Los Santos initially sold his products from the trunk of his car in the Food Lion parking lot on Sherron Road in Durham. He knew that customers felt overwhelmed deciding what barbeque sauce to buy from the vast selection in the grocery store. Using this indecisiveness to his advantage, he would use this opportunity to pitch his sauce.

“As an introvert it was really hard for me,” De Los Santos said. “I would be like, ‘Hey, I got the sauce for you. But you got to come outside to my car.’”

The first time the pitch was successful, a woman sampled the sauce and immediately bought a bottle. Encouraged by this response, De Los Santos continued to approach strangers to promote his product for several weeks. Eventually, he switched his sales strategy by attending local markets, expanding his products to broader audiences. 

Following success at smaller markets, De Los Santos proceeded selling his products at larger festivals spanning across the east coast. As demand grew, he further broadened his reach by launching a website that enabled customers from across the nation purchase his products.

However, when the pandemic struck, in-person markets shut down. “Festivals, markets and in-person events still made up 65% of our revenue,” said De Los Santos. Leaving him no choice, he had to adapt his business model by redirecting funds towards enhancing the website to accommodate the surge in online orders. 

During this time, Durham residents were reluctant to pay for shipping as they could easily purchase the products locally. Enabling local accessibility, De Los Santos introduced a retail storefront at 306 South Driver Street in Durham.

“As restrictions lifted, more and more people were coming into shop,” said De Los Santos. “They were coming in buying sauce and saying, ‘Hey we know you can make barbeque too, we’ve seen your stuff. We want to buy a sandwich, we want to buy some ribs from you.’” Receiving encouragement from local patrons was extremely gratifying as owning his own restaurant had been a long awaited dream. To test the viability of this goal, he arranged a series of pop-up dinners, selling tickets to attend in advance. Without fail, each event sold out, affirming the strong potential De Los Santos knew he possessed.

In July 2023, Mike D’s BBQ opened on 455 South Driver Street. 

Photo courtesy of Mike De Los Santos.

It has not even been a year since it opened and the restaurant has already made an indelible mark in East Durham.

“[Mike D’s] has had a really big impact on the community,” said Charlotte, a Mike D’s employee and East Durham local. “He [De Los Santos] is also just a really great guy who is really skilled at what he does.”

With the restaurant, De Los Santos is also helping other Black-owned businesses, fostering a positive environment that surpasses the walls of Mike D’s. “Juices, sweet tea, lemonade and fruit punch is made from another business a block away,” he said. “We try and keep our dollars circulating in East Durham.”

Looking ahead, De Los Santos not only aims to foster the growth of Mike D’s and surrounding Black-owned businesses, but he also aims to contribute to the training of the next generation of Black pit masters. “If you look back at some of the history of barbeque, there were a lot of Black pitmasters that taught people how to do this and get it going, and that’s been lost,” said De Los Santos. “I want to be training the next generation of Black pitmasters so that way we get part of our history back.”

Opening the restaurant, De Los Santos had one thing in mind: the community. It is with that same focus that explains why the majority of employees live within a five mile radius of Mike D’s. It is also why the restaurant has long tables rather than small ones. “What we try to do is build a community,” said De Los Santos, “We want people to have conversations with people they don’t know and build relationships.”

Strengthening connections over a meal, strangers become friends. Differences are put aside because the barbeque navigates finding common ground. De Los Santos’ small choices have had a profound impact.

“[De Los Santos is an] undercover superhero,” said Jennah, an employee at Mike D’s. “I’ve only known him for about six months or seven months, but he’s become a role model to plenty of people in the community, especially his employees.”

In a time where there seems to be an abundance of hate in the world, De Los Santos is cultivating unity through his barbeque.

“You can feel the love in food,” De Los Santos said. “That’s a real thing.”