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American Alchemy: The Bay Area Welder Who's Building Smokers and Changing Lives

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A man in a work apron holds the lid of a barbecue smoker, as stylized blue flames shoot up behind him. Text reads, "BBQ in the Bay."
Garnet Geoffroy, aka GStacks, has built custom smokers for celebrities like Warren G, E-40 and Marshawn Lynch. (Photo by Beth LaBerge; design by Rebecca Kao)

KQED’s BBQ in the Bay is a series of stories exploring the Bay Area’s multicultural barbecue scene. New installments will post every day from June 28–July 1. 

T

he term “American made” brings to mind images of Paul Bunyan types: pickup trucks, sledge hammers, plaid shirts and beer.  It’s the idea of Rosie the Riveter—you know, prideful blue collar work to support this country’s wartime efforts. It’s athletes and entertainers like Babe Ruth, Marylin Monroe and Bruce Springtsteen. “American made,” it has a certain brand.

Inside a single-story warehouse in the delta town of Suisun City, just 20 miles northeast of Vallejo, there’s a craftsman who makes uniquely refined barbecue grills—or rather, smokers, trailers and pits. He’s serious about his tools, knows all about the quality of his metal, and he’s a physicist when it comes to discussing how airflow and indirect heat impact the taste of ribs. His work has taken him from being down bad to being on the up-and-up with some of the top dogs. His name is Garnet Geoffroy, and he’s the owner of GStacks Professional Smokers and Pits. 

Geoffroy, or GStacks, has locs that drape down to his muscular shoulders, black-framed glasses and beat-up, wheat-colored work boots. His hands are grease-stained and rough from years of labor, but still welcoming when exchanging that handshake we both instinctively know as Black men.“What’s up, King?” he says as he greets me.

He, too, is American made.

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“I’m a welder, a fabricator,” says Geoffroy in an unmistakably Bay Area accent. “And I speak life into people.” He’s a constant soul-searcher who holds near and dear his ability to create. And because of his spirituality, he knows that his mission is bigger than barbecue. But right now, he’s using that as his vessel. “In the food industry,” Geoffroy says, “so many of us have this God-given talent of being able to please somebody through food… and that’s priceless.”

Man looks up pensively as he works with metal equipment.
G Stacks works on a custom BBQ smoker at his warehouse in Suisun City on June 16, 2022. (Beth LaBerge)

Before getting to Geoffroy’s larger life goals, though, you’ve got to understand his current success and where it all started.   

“I’ve got units at Vegan Mob in Oakland, KC’s BBQ in Berkeley, Smokin Woods, Flip N Soul, Ruby Jewels, M.C.M. Kitchen Vallejo,” Geoffroy says, naming well-known eateries as easily as Bubba rattled off the names of different types of shrimp in Forrest Gump.

“Dawgie Dog’s in Vallejo, Pig in a Pickle in Corte Madera, River Rock Casino, Pacific Coast Producers, Local Q 707 in Petaluma—they’re great.” 

He mentions DJ’s Tri-Tip in Stockton and Tank House BBQ and Bar in Sacramento’s midtown, followed by the names of some of his high profile customers: Marshawn Lynch and E-40. Then he tells the story of working with a well-known rapper and producer from Long Beach.

“When I got the call, I looked at my phone and I was like, ‘Warren Griffin?’ Who’s got Warren G’s name?” Geoffroy jokes. 

That was 2016. Since then Geoffroy has produced eight different smokers for Warren G, a barbecue connoisseur and owner of Sniffin Griffins BBQ. “The ninth one is in my shop right now,” he says.

A black and white barbecue smoker on wheels in an empty lot; a red smoker is behind it.
Custom smokers of various shapes and sizes sit outside GStacks’ warehouse.

“I have to say that this is a very incredible unit,” says Warren G in a 2017 video, where he’s standing next to a custom-made smoker that has a working sound system and a wood-grain steering wheel as a handle. Warren G praises the build out—and the chicken that GStacks cooked in it—noting that he had seen the smoker on Instagram, but that wasn’t enough: “I had to come and witness it.”

Years before he was making barbecue trailers and smokers for the creator of the West Coast hip-hop subgenre of G-Funk, Geoffroy, who was raised in Vallejo, was in and out of incarceration. Over a span of seven years Geoffroy was locked up, first in youth detention  and then adult jail.  

“I didn’t do ‘lost time,’” Geoffroy says sharply. “I got wise. Every time I got locked up, I got into the welding program.”

At 18, he was locked up in Fouts Springs Youth Facility. While there, he noticed a pattern: “The white boys would get up early and go to program. The Black boys in there would just kick it all day.” He made his choice to get up early and take classes with the white kids. He made his mistakes at times, like wearing the wrong welding hood– a safety issue that put his eyes in jeopardy, but corrections were made and the losses rapidly became valuable lessons. 

A man kneels on the ground welding something, as blue sparks fly.
A longtime employee at GStacks’ warehouse welds a steel frame for a BBQ smoker. (Beth LaBerge)

Three years later, Geoffroy spent his 21st birthday inside Sacramento’s Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, where he further refined his welding ability. After he got out, he found his path—but it wasn’t without a few twists and turns.

Geoffroy spent time in the streets, living the fast life and making money through channels he was familiar with given the environment he was raised in. A series of unfortunate events, including the deaths of a few close friends, led him to the church. That’s where things started to change.

Through the church he learned about Cypress Mandela Training Center, a vocational training program in West Oakland. He credits that community, specifically the older Black men who taught classes, for his full-blown introduction to the craft of welding.

Around 2005 he finished the pre-apprenticeship training program, got certified and became an ironworker. He did structural steel erection, assisting with the creation of bridges, colleges, hospitals and more.

He was in the Iron Workers Union for a year and a half before things went awry. “I got run over by a forklift by a drunk foreman on a night job,” says Geoffroy, pulling up his right pant leg to reveal a lengthy scar on his inner calf. “I almost lost my leg.”

After surgery and rehabilitation, Geoffroy says, “like a dummy I went back to work, because that’s all I knew.” And then, four years later, a second major injury occurred, this time to his back. He got workers’ compensation, but the cash wasn’t sustainable, and definitely not worth two lifelong scars. He hit a wall.

A man looks up as he uses a band saw to cut a steel beam.
Geoffroy cuts steel beams for the frame of a smoker. (Beth LaBerge)

 “I went fishing for three years, sitting on the Bay in a boat, trying to figure out my next play,” Geoffroy reflects. A father of twin girls, he was also married at the time. His now ex-wife pushed him to find a new job. Geoffroy questioned, “How do I get a job when my body is mangled?”

He went back to what he knows best: welding. This time for himself. He started in his garage, making a welding cart to wheel around his materials and fix a neighbor’s boat trailer. Then, he got the idea to make barbecue pits. It was something he’d done as a side gig one time while he was still working in the union, turning a 55-gallon barrel into a grill for a brother who attended his church. He was underpaid for that one, but the seed was planted. 

Years later, unemployed, injured and in a financial situation that had his back against the wall, he found some odd pieces—an old jet ski trailer and two water tanks from a seller in Santa Rosa—and made his first barbecue trailer, then posted it on Craigslist. It sold to a woman who smokes turkeys in Pittsburg, and from there the requests started rolling in. 

This was 2012. Geoffroy started his business and the money was starting to come in. But even as his entrepreneurial endeavors began to grow, he came to the realization that he still had some work to do on himself.

Plans and measurements for a future smoker. (Beth LaBerge)

During a 2017 trip to Mexico for a cousin’s wedding, he hit rock bottom. Overweight and indulging in alcohol, he says he didn’t eat any food at the resort he was staying in because he had noticed that there was a clowder of cats living in one of the refrigerators the hotel was using. His friends neverminded it, but he couldn’t stomach it. So, he compensated by drinking more. “At that time I was 333 pounds,” says Geoffroy, pointing to pictures of himself from that era. “I had an epiphany that I can’t live like this.” 

After the trip he implemented portion-controlled diets and cut out alcohol and sugary drinks. Now his only vice is an order of chips and queso from Chipotle. Otherwise, he doesn’t do fast food, but he does do barbecue. And he’s a huge advocate for sea moss.

Beyond controlling his consumption, Geoffroy is ever mindful of how his time is used. Mondays and Thursdays are the only days he allows people to talk to him; otherwise, he’s working. His creations take time. Geoffroy says, “each smoker is different,” as they’re all handmade, often using quarter-inch to eighth-inch steel. 

Sometimes he and a duo of private contractors work to refurbish old units, remixing the elements that are already in place. He’s built pieces that funnel out the taste of charcoal and others that are completely electric. Some trailers have working water spouts and others have custom embroidery. He says he doesn’t rely on blueprints, but will take a measure of the customer and try to create a unit that speaks to their personality. 

Again, Geoffroy stresses the time it takes to create these build outs. “I can’t just blow these things into existence.” 

W

arren G’s 1994 track “Do You See” starts with a sample of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Bicentennial Blues.”

But the blues has always been totally American
As American as apple pie
As American as the blues
As American as apple pie
The question is why?
Why should the blues be so at home here?
Well, America provided the atmosphere

Scott-Heron recites the lyrics as a synthesizer hums in the background, right before the drums kick. In the song, Warren G goes on to rap about his environment and the ups and downs he and his circle of friends are facing, mentioning his cousin, Snoop Dogg, who was incarcerated at the time. On the final verse, the man who penned “Regulate” says:

Well as time goes past, slowly we try to make it
But things are gettin hectic, I just can’t take it
Should I A: Go back to slangin’ dope?
Or should I B: Maintain and try to cope?
Or should I C: Just get crazy and wild?
But no I chose D: Create the G-Child

In this country, the ability to create and then recreate yourself, in spite of your environment, is more than just being “American made,” it’s American alchemy—just like barbecue itself is a form of alchemy. And Geoffroy knows that it doesn’t end with him. He’s looking to pay it forward. 

He says his end goal isn’t to sell barbecue pits to famous people or make the best-tasting ribs on record. He wants to buy a youth facility, where he can introduce young folks to skilled trades, similar to the space where he learned how to weld at the Fouts Springs Youth Facility. He even aims to work with the same population.

“The ones whose backs are already up against the wall, that’s who I want to work with,” says Geoffroy in a voice that lets you know he’s been to church a few times. “I come from helping the ones who struggle, the ones who are wounded…I want to reach the sick, not the ones who are healed.” 

A man seen through an opening in a a barbecue smoker emblazoned with the website "GStackspits.com"
GStacks works on a BBQ smoker outside of his warehouse in Suisun City. (Beth LaBerge)

More BBQ

Beyond teaching craftsmanship, he wants to instill  character and morale, and expose people to things they might not see in their immediate environment. 

Business-wise, he’s competing with “American made” big names like Weber and Traeger. The latter of the two is based in the U.S. but manufactures its units overseas. “Their box is from America. My product is,” says Geoffroy.  

Of course, even the saying “as American as apple pie” is a misnomer—the dessert was created in England. But Geoffroy, a person who had hiccups in American schools and spent time in American jails, has learned to make something out of nothing, the American way. And now he uses his creations to assist people in making food that has the power to heal. Well, that’s a tale as American as G-Funk.

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Pendarvis Harshaw is the host of Rightnowish on KQED-FM, a columnist at KQED Arts, and the author of OG Told Me, a memoir about growing up in Oakland.

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