By Sarah Brown
For Lebanon Local
When “Momma” Kendra Knebel greets you for the first time, her warmth and genuineness is immediately apparent.
The matriarch of seven children wears a bandana over her hair and offers food and refreshments like you’re part of the family.
She likes to tell people the irony that her German husband, “Papa” Dan, and her Lebanese self now live on Berlin Road in Lebanon. They also run two foster homes just outside of Sweet Home for developmentally disabled adults and children.
The Knebels, though, are perhaps best known for bringing Bo-Mack’s BBQ to Albany, but behind the brisket is a family rooted deep in faith and relationship.
Kendra likens the family to a modern-day Waltons. Dan manages the farm; the girls love canning, sewing, quilting, gardening and pottery; and the boys love trapping, fishing, reloading guns, and all that “outdoorsy guy stuff.”
But together, they all love music and they all work as a team in the myriad businesses run by their family.
Their story begins in 1985 when Kendra’s father told her matter-of-factly she was supposed to marry Dan Knebel, she said. Her father believed it was God’s will, though she barely knew the man.
“He told me, ‘Let’s look at it like this: if you marry Dan and it doesn’t work out, that’s my bad; I didn’t know what I was doing. But if you marry him and it works out, that’s my good. Now if you get married to somebody and it doesn’t work out, that’s your bad. Do you really want to live with that? What does the Bible say? Obey your mother and father, for that will bring you blessings and joy.’”
Kendra resisted the concept of agreeing to marry someone just because her father told her it was God’s will, but he died within three weeks after the discussion, so she asked Dan out, she said.
Dan is a large, unassuming man who was running a logging business in Camas Valley at the time.
“I was shy and didn’t have a whole lot of girlfriends,” he said.
Before he could continue his story, Kendra spoke up.
“A ‘whole lot?’” she said.
“Well, OK, none,” he corrected himself.
The two let out a good laugh.
When Kendra made plans with Dan for their first date, she decided to get herself out of the marriage scheme by striking a deal with God, she said.
“Here’s the deal: If he doesn’t ask me this sentence, I’m not marrying him. He has to say, ‘Can you tell me about God?’ Six words. If he doesn’t say it, I’m off the hook. If he says it, I’ll do what you want. I’ll marry the man, and I’ll make his life special.”
At the end of the date, though Kendra didn’t prompt the subject matter at all, Dan asked the six words she didn’t expect to hear, she said.
They’ve been inseparable since.
“I always say he’s the weight in my balloon. I just always fly off with all kinds of ideas and he keeps me grounded,” Kendra said.
The family home-schooled their children and moved to Lebanon in 2006, when Kahlil, their second child, wanted to attend Linn Benton Community College and transfer to Oregon State University.
“We’ll all go. It’ll be fun,” Kendra told the family when they decided to make the move.
Some of the younger children got involved in music at East Linn Christian Academy and the family developed a local reputation for their singing skills. They also got a farm up and running in the McDowell Creek area, and got involved in the local watershed district.
After settling into their new life, Kendra visited the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce to find out how she could best serve the community and bring in some income, she said. Based on her experience with catering, they suggested she open a large-scale catering business.
The kids agreed catering would be fun and felt they were all equipped to handle it, Kendra said. They started their business in 2006, operating at festivals and fairs in the area.
Within two years the Knebel family had the opportunity to open a restaurant in downtown Albany, in 2008, and Costco was asking for their barbecue sauce.
Her son Mack crafted the sauce.
Kendra said she wanted a barbecue sauce that reflected the family, that complemented them, and knew Mack would enjoy creating it.
“There’s sauces out there, but they’re not really individualized for us, custom,” she said.
He came up with three versions. One was too vinegary, one was too smoky, but the other was just right, she said. It made her nervous that Mack hadn’t written the recipe down, so they grabbed a paper sack and materialized what was in his head.
And since the siblings often called Mack ‘Bo,’ they determined the name should be Bo-Mack’s, Kendra said.
Mary Carter at the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce told Kendra they needed to bottle and sell the sauce, and that was becoming more apparent when her patrons were stealing it off the tables.
“Unless there’s a bottling plant a mile from my house, I’m not chasing my tail,” Kendra told Mary.
Not much later, Kendra received a call from a neighbor she’d not yet met, she said. Marlene Peterson introduced herself and explained she ran a bottling plant a mile from Kendra’s home.
The Bo-Mack story continued like that for the next nine years.
Kendra noted the business was exploding, despite the Knebels’ refusal to offer alcohol or gambling, and despite the fact their furnishings were eclectic.
“It wasn’t about the stuff,” she said. “It was about the heart and the hospitality. It was always about the food and the relationships.”
The menu was simple: Mama’s cornbread and potato salad, a wide variety of barbecued meats, and dessert: “Whatever Mama felt like making today!”
She got to know her customers and remember their stories, Kendra said. As employees of their own business, the Knebels were also known for ringing a cowbell every hour so the staff could stop and sing.
“People just ate it up. It became you came for dinner and a song. That kinda was our claim to fame. You came in, you were treated like family,” she said.
But it got to be a lot and the Knebels moved from downtown Albany to a drive-up location near the Highway 34/Interstate 5 junction in 2015. They eventually moved back downtown a year ago.
As business grew, Costco continued to ask for the sauce, and other stores, like Market of Choice and Wilco, did the same. While Kendra says Costco was the driving force that led the family to manufacturing and distribution of their products, it wasn’t until recently that their name finally hit the shelves in Albany and Eugene, and those stores are just the beginning of what will eventually spread to East Coast if all goes well, she said.
“(Costco) kinda courted us in a way. We’ve kind of been on this journey together,” she said.
Now that Costco has partnered with Bo-Mack’s, the Knebel family decided it was time to close the restaurant and focus on this next phase of their life with manufacturing and distribution of their sauces, cornbread, jellies and the like.
It was hard, though, Kendra said. She loved her patrons – “BoMackians” she calls them – but she had to say goodbye when they served their last plate Aug. 26.
Still, the family’s own plate is full. Their catering business continues, and they are raising something of an extended family through their foster homes. Kendra likens the children’s foster home to Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.
“There are so many lost children, and who’s going to step up?” she said.
Kendra admits it’s a lot of work, but is thankful her husband and seven children work as a team to help.
“At the end of the day, you can have all the money in the world, but it’s when you have the people around you that you know that you’re helping, that God has given you this incredible gift to share your life.”
The Knebels want to stay connected with all the people they’ve grown to know and love over the years. To do that, they hope to host “Community Dinners” from time to time. BoMackians can purchase tickets and enjoy a buffet-style meal while visiting with the community.
“My vision is where we’re there serving the meal with the people, singing, Momma tells a story,” she said. “(We’d be) just kind of interacting with our peops because they just got to be so close to us in the restaurant.”
Kendra’s philosophy is that God wants to bless people so they can be a blessing to others, but she says that although God will lead your steps, you still have to walk.
“Life is full if you want it to be, and it’s good. You just have to keep the perspective.”
The kids: What life’s like in the Knebel household
The Knebel children – Malika, 29, Kahlil, 28, Mack, 27, Kamillah, 24, Mahalah, 20, Makai, 18, and Kaisha, 16 – say growing up in their large family has instilled in them traits and values they wouldn’t change.
Q: What are your thoughts about growing up in your family?
Kahlil: If you’ve watched “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” you can have an idea of what growing up in my family is like. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s crazy, and we love it!
Mack: It breeds creativity because you have nine people to bounce ideas off of. We have artists, writers, entrepreneurs; some of us like to tinker and fix things, so that kind of strains inventions and ideas where there wouldn’t be any.
Kamillah: There’s always work to be done, but it’s fun and goes faster because we always work together, so we can break out into song while we’re working. You’re never short for a best friend.
Mahalah: I would say a lot of what my family has that’s special has to do with our culture. Being part Lebanese, there is a big sense of family and love and laughter.
Makai: There’s zero privacy, but also you’re never lonely. There’s always a big support system in the bad and the good moments. However, the house could use more boys (laughing).
Kaisha: I love the patience that it teaches you (laughing). It taught me sharing. Being the baby in the family has been fun because I get spoiled by my sisters, who love me.
Q: How would you describe the role that your parents play?
Malika: I think that my dad has always been the strong silent type. He doesn’t always have a lot to say, but when he does you know you need to stop and listen.
Kahlil: People love our mother – her kind heart, her giving personality, her determination, her work ethic, her nurturing spirit.
Kamillah: I would say that both of my parents are very compassionate and they instill in us to help others.
Mahalah: I think that our parents play different but unique roles. A lot of people think that Dad is silent and stern, but really he is a teddy bear once you get him talking about his wife and kids. Mom taught me how to be compassionate and how to care for people.
Q: How have your parents impacted you personally?
Mack: With Dad, I’ve learned no-nonsense, and when you have something that needs done, you do it. There is no try; just do. With Mom, she’s taught me to be passionate about things. She taught me that anything worth doing is worth doing right. Having a good work ethic is better than merely just completing a task.
Mahalah: Dad has taught me how to stop, think and evaluate, then act. I tend to jump into things like my momma, but Dad is teaching me to slow down. Mom has taught me how to treat everyone the same by loving unconditionally and how to dream big no matter what the limitations seem.
Makai: My parents have taught me how to make the right decisions in life and how to accept the consequences if I make the wrong ones. They’ve given me a good foundation to build on.
Kaisha: Dad has taught me the value of knowing how to build things, and Mom has taught me how to look at things positively.