Up to the COVID challenge: TenderBones returns its homemade flair to Dover eating scene

TenderBones Rib Shack owner Clint ‘Chef Bones’ Harris stands in front of his recently reopened eatery at 617 E. Loockerman St. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — That old familiar voice of Clint “Chef Bones” Harris is ringing out from the kitchen again at TenderBones Rib Shack, singing out to customers “When you get home, you’re gonna eat some TenderBoooones!”

Mr. Harris, who opened his TenderBones location at Dover last spring at the former home of Where Pigs Fly at 617 E. Loockerman St., has been closed for nearly a month trying to regroup amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We took off just to give us some time to get some things done to breathe a little bit, because it’s been extremely busy,” said the personable Mr. Harris. “We’re going to open up Thursday, Friday and Saturday and let that build a little bit and then we’ll continue to add a day as we become a little safer in COVID and everything else.

“You can see all the sit-down space and we want to get back to that. We’ve separated things to keep people safe, we walk around and disinfect to keep people safe, we do all kinds of things to keep people safe.”

It was Fried Fish Friday when the restaurant reopened its doors last week, and while it started off slow, the business picked up steam later into the afternoon. The aromatic smell of wood burning and meat cooking surrounded the building, which was once an old Shakey’s pizza place many years ago.

“It has been a challenge,” Mr. Harris said. “It’s been a pleasure to be able to come to Dover. I mean the overall welcoming situation that has happened here has been amazing.

“As far as the challenge, the city of Dover has been excellent with working with us and the health department has been excellent. The strain of COVID has just been a difficult situation for everybody.”

Mr. Harris and his staff have been busy taking care of some maintenance issues around the building in their time off. Since it is an older building, he said his landlord has also been helpful in “making sure that we are doing our best here.”

Mr. Harris, whose other, original TenderBones location is in Bear, has plans on dedicating a couple of years of coming down to Dover to make sure the business is sound and running the way that it needs to, and his family recipes are doing what they need to do — keep bringing loyal customers back through the doors.

Clint ‘Chef Bones’ Harris batters fish at his Dover restaurant.

TenderBones’ menu includes all the barbecue staples such as spareribs, brisket, smoked pork and chicken, along with a bevy of homemade sides, but it might actually be most notorious for its 3-pound Philly cheesesteak, which comes in a Styrofoam container both numbered and signed by the chef himself.

The sandwich is actually not mentioned on the restaurant’s menu, along with a few other specialties that customers must specifically request, but can be purchased for $15. It is meant to be shared.

Mr. Harris started to make the cheesesteak as a way to honor his beloved Philadelphia Eagles after they won their first Super Bowl in 2018. The cheesesteak is 3 pounds of ribeye steak, American cheese, onions and green and red peppers on a 13-inch roll.

TenderBones has sold nearly 50,000 of the pant-button popping cheesesteaks since February 2018, including 6,115 of them at Dover since opening last year.

While the barbecue restaurant opens at 11 a.m. each day they unlock their doors, it’s never quite certain when the doors will close, so customers need to get their order in early if they want to be guaranteed of satisfying their cravings.

“As always, we’re looking at being open from 11 a.m. until the food is gone,” Mr. Harris said. “We cook and cook and cook until it’s gone because we found out that set hours … people always ask, ‘Why don’t you just have enough food to feed everybody?’ Well, that’s an impossible thing to do.

“We’re always going to have someone that’s not going to be able to get something because we have to go home, and we have to predict what we’re going to do as far as sales goes. Turning someone away is hurtful for me because I try to do what I can for everybody.”

He added that his restaurant simply isn’t like a fast-food joint where people look for efficiency in getting their meals. He said he wants to be able to deliver consistent quality and his homemade dishes are meant to bring people together, both in his restaurant and when they take it home to enjoy around the family table.

“When we do what we do here it isn’t like the standard of taking shortcuts,” said Mr. Harris. “To get our customers to understand that we make our food ‘to order’ and what that means to us is that we have to continue to cook because people are going to continue to come. When we run out of a product because of the demand it’s because people want food that is home cooked.

“As a chef I want people to remember that there’s a reason why there’s fast food and there’s a reason why people cook ‘to order.’ It’s a standard of how you want your meal to be.”

Mr. Harris said he has never claimed to be the world’s best chef, but he does have a definite pride in the product that his restaurants are able to deliver.

He also loves the interaction he gets with his customers and extended family when he is able to deliver inspirational messages to them on Facebook Live directly from his restaurant on Thursday and Friday mornings.

“I want to be able to make sure that my product is a good product,” he said. “I don’t claim to cook better than anyone. Never do I claim that. A lot of customers will tell me, ‘I do something this way, or that way. I love your food and everything else,’ and this is how we make it. That’s how you love ‘your food.’

“You love to make ‘your food’ that way so that’s going to be what you love. I’m never going to outdo you with making ‘your food,’ but I am going to give you a good product. And if I don’t satisfy you in any way, let me know, because that’s where I’m learning.
“For the thousands of customers that we’ve served already, I’ve talked to a lot of people and we continue to grow, and it’s a blessing.”

Chef Bones said he is also seeing signs all around him of 2021 being a much better year than 2020.

“I’m encouraged by what’s going on in the world right now,” he said. “I’m encouraged that we’re moving in a better direction that we can do things to get us opened, especially with the vaccines coming out. I just continue to hope and pray that they will provide and keep these (immunizations) coming out.”

That’s important, because his Dover location — post-COVID — promises to offer 124 seats, along with 11 televisions.

He added that once everybody is safe, hopefully everyone is “gonna eat some Tenderboooones!”

And he can’t wait to greet them.