Bernard Allen Builds Community by Making Custom Grills

Bernard Allen in his element.
Photo by Zachary Fagenson
Bernard Allen in his element.
"You wouldn't believe how many grown men I've seen cry," Bernard Allen says before nodding a red and black welder's mask back over his face to send a flash of sparks flying from a black metal grill.

"Women will order one for their husbands, and when they get here and see it, they just fall apart. It's better than any car, any toy they've ever gotten."

The 52-year-old Miami native wears a thick beard and weathered work pants and shoes. Every so often, the deafening roar of a private plane swells and ebbs as it lands at Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport. His office inside Brownsville Grills is part administrative operation and part closet, where he often changes into fresh clothes after working a 12-hour day of shaping, welding, and cutting metal to build outdoor grills for home enthusiasts, church fundraisers, and some of Miami's favorite chefs and cooks.

In an era when buying a grill usually means going to Home Depot and trying to decide which made-in-China rig will take the longest to rust, Allen offers something with an artisan's touch, a love of cooking, and a lifetime of burns, cuts, and sweat.

He was born in Brownsville and graduated from Miami Northwestern Senior High in 1986 but began working in his father Robert's Hialeah metal shop long before finishing school.

"We didn't have recess; we had the shop," he says. "For my father, it was a way of life, a way to put food on the table, and it kept us out of trouble, off the streets, and probably out of prison."

Allen realized he was learning more than just a trade when he was midway through high school. His shop teacher, Mr. Delong, noticed his talent and encouraged him to enter a piece in a competition in which the winner's work would be displayed at the Miami-Dade County Fair. The piece, consisting of a bicycle fork welded to a paint can with a rusted rim, stayed with the fair for more than a decade.
click to enlarge The chance to learn about people and different styles of cooking, as well as the nature of the barbecue as a kind of community, has kept Allen going for nearly three decades. - PHOTO BY ZACHARY FAGENSON
The chance to learn about people and different styles of cooking, as well as the nature of the barbecue as a kind of community, has kept Allen going for nearly three decades.
Photo by Zachary Fagenson
After graduating, Allen worked in his father's shop for a few years before trying things on his own, such as a gig at the McArthur Dairy plant in Little Haiti. He always went back to the shop, often to his father's chiding that the prodigal son had returned.

Over the years, Allen began to realize he had a passion for building grills, which retail for $300 to more than $10,000. He was creating hearths for families, for communities, and for moments that people would anticipate and recall for untold lengths of time. The importance of building the best grill possible became further apparent when he thought about all that goes into barbecuing, whether in a home or restaurant.

"They're almost spiritual," he says, "and if you have a bad barbecue, people are going to know about it, so I always think about all the care a person or chef will put into sourcing and preparing their meat. I'm the last link in the chain, and I need to be strong."

These days, Allen has almost more work than he can handle. On a recent weekday, he puts the final touches on a trailer-mounted rig with more than five feet of grilling space; a local church paid $6,500 for it. Inside his shop, one wall is covered by a stack of old tanks and cans that will be split and rebuilt as grills. In another trailer setup, two cylinders of coal would flank the cook.

Outside, a more than 30-year-old grill his father built awaits a refurbish.

"Every now and then you get one of these, and they're like time capsules, but they also remind me how important they are to people," Allen says.

Over the past couple of years, he's also seen a shift in the kind of grills people want. Allen's rigs are a mainstay throughout the community and can be found everywhere from Jack Homes' Mama Lucy's All-Pro Ribs, Oratio Garrell's King Jerk, and even Janine Booth and Jeff McInnis' recently opened Mi'talia.

Now, however, customers are asking for offset smokers and Argentine-style flat grills. The change reminds him of one he saw decades ago when Cubans and other Latin Americans began moving to Miami en masse and seemingly changing the composition of various communities. All of them, however, wanted to grill, and his father's shop was a place that catered to everyone.

"It doesn't matter who you are or where you come from," Allen says. "Everyone loves a barbecue, and learning and seeing how other people do it, and getting to help them, is amazing."

Brownsville Grills. 3595 NW 154th Ter., Opa-locka; 786-449-7481;