Where's the beef? Downtown, it's at Prime Time BBQ, Meats & Deli, which opened Wednesday in the former home of Big Popy's Deli.

The new business, run by Luis Morales, will follow in the grill marks of its predecessor, serving up fresh barbecue during the week and offering a well-stocked meat counter of assorted cuts, sausages and more.

This is an exciting venture for Morales, 47, an Arvin High grad who, along with managing an independent grocery store, last worked for Rain for Rent. 

Although he didn't expect to venture into the food business, a fateful job interview set him on his path.

"He (the interviewer) asked me, 'If it wasn't about the money, what would you do for a living?' I told him I'd be a chef, and he said, 'You lit up like a Christmas tree when you were talking about food.'"

As luck would have it, Morales re-connected with Robert Contreras, whom he had done catering work with in the past. Contreras introduced him to Jimmy Lopez, who formerly ran Big Popy's Deli and still owns the 20th Street building. 

"He has been so helpful," Morales said of Lopez. "I couldn't find a better landlord."

Along with a lease agreement, Lopez offered Morales some business advice.

"He said, 'More than anything, it's customer service. You've got to take care of the customer. It's service and quality.'

"And that fit right in with what we're doing. As small independent guys, we can't be the cheapest, but we can make them feel like they're at home."

Starting out, the barbecue menu will be limited, Morales said, as he determines customer interest. Options will include a hot sandwich, like tri-tip or pulled pork, along with an entree salad (e.g. barbecue chicken and greens). Sides will include potato, macaroni or pasta salad as well as secret-recipe chili beans. 

Morales also plans to offer a specialty burger.

"Like Narducci's ('Ducci burger available downtown), we started doing a bacon-burger patty about 10 years ago," he said of the time when he oversaw a grocery store meat counter. "And we did one with ground beef and chorizo. It still looked red —because of the chorizo — but it had tremendous flavor."

Prime Time's meat counter will offer Harris Ranch beef and the locally raised Santa Carota Beef. And in a nod to evolving dietary concerns, Morales will start out offering natural, free-range, hormone- and antibiotic-free pork and chicken, from Niman Ranch and Regal Crest Farms, respectively.

The cost is higher but Morales said many are willing to pay more when they can taste the difference.

"It's for customers who are more aware of what they're putting into their bodies," Morales said.

For those willing to indulge, Prime Time's cold case will stock Gino's Gelato, created by Luigi's co-owner Gino Valpredo. Down the line, another local frozen confection will also be sold, but Morales was confirming the deal as of press time.

Also available for grab-and-go customers will be beef and chicken fajitas and seasoned tri-tip, all ready for the grill. 

But to start, the barbecue outside the shop, which will be fired up five days a week, is meant to lure in customers for lunch and a little bit more, Morales said.

"We're going to draw them in with the barbecue pit, but the whole reason we want them here is to buy meat."

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.