Leigh's Barbecue: A Business Born With Gaseous Diffusion Plant Keeps Cooking Despite Shutdown

Sep 24, 2013

October brings the second round of layoffs at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. For local business owners, that is money out of their pockets. One local community staple, just down the road from the plant, has counted on those paychecks for generations.

Most any morning you can find Ray Leigh in the back of a green cinder block building tucked off the Old Highway 60 outside of Kevil, Kentucky. 

There'll be smoke rising from out back, and he'll be cooking barbecue. Strictly old school, coal shoveled barbecue.

The process hasn’t changed much in three generations, but the volume has. Leigh’s grandfather started the business to meet the demand of hungry construction crews building the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion plant in the 1950’s.

Ray's father, Eddie Leigh, can remember it well.

"My dad started out as a guard down there," Eddie Leigh said. "He got to barbecuing on the weekends and carrying it down there. It out growed so much he just quit the guard and come barbecue."

The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant helped define the post-war era, covering 750 acres, and producing the fuel that powered the Cold War and many nuclear power plants. 

On this particular summer morning, the dew lifts off grass along the highway and Ray's father, Eddie Leigh, pours another cup of coffee to his regulars that gather before the barbecue joint opens. 

The informal man's club is constant with talk and debate.

They all seem to be either current, retired or somehow connected to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. 

With hundreds of workers soon to be out of the job at the plant none, including Eddie Leigh, seem to know the magic answer of what to do next. 

"I don't have any idea," Eddie Leigh said. "You know, I don't know how it's going to affect… there not going to find another job like the one they've got now, with the benefits and the money."

While Eddie Leigh still makes deliveries to the plant a couple times a week, he's already starting to feel the effects of the layoffs. He estimates thirty percent of Leigh’s business comes directly from USEC employees. Things have slowed down so much he's already cut one of his three full time workers.

"The ones I feel sorry for is this young couples that have been down there four or five years and went out there and bought these 200 and something thousand dollar homes, and new cars and bas boats and new trucks and now they're getting laid off," Eddie Leigh said.

If things continue at this pace, Ray isn't too optimistic about what will happen to Kevil, or the surrounding region. 

"This whole town will be a ghost town," Ray Leigh said. "You know, it will affect everybody. And not necessarily just this county, it will affect Ballard also. Metropolis. It will affect a lot of people."

Gary Jackson has been friends with Eddie since high school, he retired from his second career at the plant.

As he sits on a stool at the end of the bar where he's eaten barbecue countless times over the past four decades, Jackson, like Ray and Eddie, expects to see Leigh's Barbecue weather economic trouble ahead. 

"I think they'll survive," Jackson said. "It will be a gradual slow down. Like most businesses though, they come and go with the ebb and flow of time."

Much like the sentiments of Ray's T-Shirt that reads, "It is what it is," it seems that Ray and Eddie have come to accept the terms of owning a business while facing the reality of losing one third of their customer base. 

They will look to the community that has helped them be successful for the last 63 years. And they will do this for the first time, at least for a while, without workers at Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.