Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q is much more than a beloved family business. It’s a restaurant that honors a storied Southern culinary tradition of food and fire.
Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q also is a fixture in the greater Birmingham area and even beyond—bringing diverse crowds of diners from here at home, and all over the country, to Bessemer every day of the week except Sunday for award-winning barbecue; employing scores of folks in the community (some for 30, 40 or even 50 years); and making a difference where we live with the annual Bob Sykes BBQ & Blues Festival, which benefits a different community-focused nonprofit each year.
My partner Brittany Faush and I sat down with Van recently for Alabama NewsCenter to talk about this a a lot more. You can read that story here and see Brittany’s cool video.
The BBQ & Blues Festival—in its 11th year—is set for Saturday, April 30 from noon to 8 p.m. in Bessemer’s DeBardeleben Park. It will feature Grammy-winning blues legend Bobby Rush as well as Tullie Brae, Robert Kimbrough Sr. Blues Connection, Hurricane Elaine & Force of Nature and more. This year, Caring Men & Caring Women, Inc. will benefit from the proceeds. This grassroots organization mentors junior high and high school students. Past charities have included Red Mountain Grace, Children’s of Alabama, Bessemer Education Enhancement Foundation and Ady’s Army.
But to fully appreciate Bob Sykes—the ‘que, the business, the outreach, the very idea—it helps to know a little bit about it.
Van Sykes is a second-generation pit master and the owner of Bob Sykes Bar-B-Que, founded by his parents and known for its smoky pork cooked over an open flame. His family has been serving this ‘que since 1957, and Van’s description of what he does is straightforward: “God gives us everything we need to barbecue,” he says. “We don’t need any help with anything else. We have wood. We have a pig. We have smoke. We have ash. We have earth. A brick pit is refractory, it’s earth because the original pit was a pit in the ground. So, all those things are just God-given things. Really, we just have to stay out of the way of it and let it happen.”
If you choose to forgo the drive-through line that often stretches all the way around the building, you can watch it happen at one of the restaurant’s pits right there in the dining room. This is not smoked meat except for the brisket and wings (more about that in a moment). Bob Sykes has specials and chicken and ribs, but don’t ask for pulled pork; they slice it here. The barbecue pork sandwich, the restaurant’s bestselling signature item, was chosen as one of the “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.”
They sell an average of 1,500 pounds of barbecue each day. On holidays, they sometimes sell 2,000 pounds. And they serve everything with scratch-made sides (don’t miss the impossibly light, crispy onion rings) and a variety of homemade cakes and pies.
Van learned his trade from his daddy, Bob, who, after returning home from World War II, opened his first restaurant in the 1950s with his wife, Maxine. Bob, in turn, had learned the nuances of barbecue from an African American man named Buck Hampton, a pit master who, in the 1920s, traveled from farm to farm in Tennessee barbecuing pork.
This history is shared in a new book: From the Pit to the Plate: The Story of Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q by local author Niki Sepsas.
While Van has ordered his hickory from the same source for a quarter of a century, lots of things have changed in more than six decades of business. For instance, there’s a difference in the very product Van serves today compared with what his father put on the pit. “Hogs today,” he says, “are larger and leaner. Much of the lard has been bred out of them.” That means he and his crew have to cook them differently. And, of course, open-pit cooking can be fickle due to the surrounding atmosphere. The pit, Van says, is different every day.
Van, who is a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance and an inductee to the Alabama Barbecue Hall of Fame, regularly shares what he knows during monthly barbecue classes.
“It’s limited to about 15 people because I pull bleachers in front of the barbecue pit, and you sit above and look down where I can explain the entire grill and everything to you,” Van says. Participants learn entertaining barbecue tips as well as some barbecue history. There are delicious bites straight from the pit and a swag bag of goodies at the end. “You’ll have a good time, and you’ll leave well-fed,” he says.
Anyone who goes to Bob Sykes or even drives by the place will notice the large retro sign topped with a pig. It reads, “Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q and Maxine too.” That’s meaningful way beyond marketing, which Maxine was very good at doing.
When Bob suffered a debilitating stroke in 1970, Maxine took over the business and took care of Bob. She did this for the next 25 years succeeding in a man’s world, Van says. “Talk about the odds stacked against you,” he adds. “She signed her checks ‘Mrs. Bob Sykes’ not ‘Maxine.’”
But long before that, Maxine was alongside Bob at every step—from their very first food venture, a short-order café called the Ice Spot, to a place in Five Points West that was simply called Bob’s and served burgers, steaks, fish and Eunice Porter’s scratch-made pies that Maxine carried to the restaurant fresh each day in the trunk of her car. When fast-food restaurants came to Birmingham, Bob and Maxine decided to specialize in barbecue to set themselves apart. And Bob Sykes Bar-B-Que was born.
Maxine brought Van to the family’s restaurant from the time he was a baby on her hip. He grew up there, he says, with two mamas: Maxine and Dot Brown, who worked in the kitchen and helped create the restaurant’s signature slaw and more.
Van was 12 when he was tasked with running the pit overnight for a Fourth of July celebration the next day. He discovered quickly that it’s long, hot and tiring work. “You learn to barbecue about four o’clock in the morning,” he says. “When you’re wore out, you look like a coal miner. … There’s nothing you can do to make it cook faster, and you’re so tired. And you’re so sleepy. And you realize at that point, barbecue is going to cook the way it cooks. If you go over there and intervene with it, you’re going to burn it or it’s going to be raw in the middle. There’s no temperature knob. There’s no dial to set.”
Van was 15 when his father had the stroke. “Mama said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. I’ll work the day shift while you’re at school, then you work the night shift.’” Van had to grow up quickly. “I’m driving Daddy’s car,” he remembers, “and she said, ‘You get pulled over, you tell them to call me.’” (There’s a funny story about this in the book.)
Van, who can usually be seen and heard, calling order numbers and catching up with customers, says, “Our highest calling is in serving the right food in the right way to each and every customer who enters our restaurant.” But another reason the restaurant has lasted for 65 years, he says, is this: “You have to change but not change.”
“It’s like one year, they drastically changed the Cadillac, and all of a sudden people hated it because … they changed it so much and it didn’t look like a Cadillac. Well, I learned from that. So, what I decided to do was have different specials that I can throw in there. Just like today is Taco Tuesday, and we have hand-pressed tortillas. And the barbecue pork is wonderful with that pico de gallo. … That’s a winner. And then, of course, we can do nachos because … we’re frying our chips back there.”
When people wanted brisket, Van decided to get a Little Red Smokehouse. “I actually worked with J&R (Manufacturing) as a consultant. … They hired me to teach them to make a Southern barbecue pit. Now, my daddy would tell you, ‘Congratulations. You’ve just turned your pit into an oven.’” But the constant temperature of the smoker makes cooking the brisket easier. Same with the popular wings that Van serves on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. He offers a barbecue Caesar salad for the low-carb crowd. There are big family meals and the “working mom special” to feed a family of four.
He occasionally runs a special “que”ban sandwich modeled on the beloved Tampa tradition. “I put sliced barbecue pork, ham, pickle, that (barbecue) sauce-mustard combination. And I order my bread from La Segunda Bakery in Tampa, Florida. It’s handmade. They stick a palm leaf in the top of every loaf. Once I got that bread, I said, ‘Well, we can make a killer sandwich.’ So, I did that.
“I change it every two weeks. The basic stuff is all still up there, but I’ve been feeding generations of people. I needed to change but not change. So, I kept everything in the constitution of smoke and barbecue except Catfish Monday. And I only did that because there’s nobody selling catfish. And I love catfish. You can have the snapper and all that; I love catfish. … Of course, the first week, they all think it’s smoked or something. I said, ‘No, it’s actually just good, old fried catfish.’ You change, but you don’t change,” Van says. “You stay within your boundaries.”
In addition to the open pits, the signature sauce—the Bob Sykes BBQ Famous Grilling and Dipping Sauce—is one of the things that sets the restaurant apart. It’s Bob’s own recipe based on the time-honored peppery vinegar “mother sauce” that has enhanced barbecued pork for, well, forever. “That sauce is designed to complement all this hard work,” Van says, adding that his daddy told him, ‘The last thing I’m going to do is cover all that work with something sweet.’
“So, it’s the cooking method, and it’s the sauce, I think, that gives us our uniqueness and the fact that … we just love people,” Van says.
He’s talking about the customers and the people who work to feed them.
“There are three people in the building today that have been here 35 years. I pay them very, very fairly, and I set them up with incentives to reach. Like Sharon (Mayes) has been making those desserts for 35 years. Rather than … a raise every two years, I said, ‘You know what? Why don’t I just give you a percentage of the dessert sales plus your pay?’ We’ve never run out of any cake. … That’s how you do it. You give them the power over their own decisions. We’re about to launch the red velvet cake into outdoor festivals. I don’t need to do it; I’m doing it for her. She wants to make more money.”
There’s a third generation now at Bob Sykes; Bob and Maxine’s grandson, Jason Jewell, works with Van. “He’s worked here since he was a kid,” Van says. “He’s more intellectual than I am. He graduated from Birmingham-Southern. He’s got a degree in finance. Our skills are complementary. I like the people. I hate the office. He would just as soon be in the office … because he likes doing the books. And let me tell you, I couldn’t open tomorrow without him.”
When asked what he is most proud of, Van doesn’t reflect on the business exactly. Instead, he talks about what the restaurant has meant for others—especially the single mothers who have worked at Bob Sykes.
“I have seen a dozen or so women come through this door, work here, raise their kids. They had college educations; they had paid-for houses. And they did it on their own, with their own work. As one used to tell me, ‘Without a sorry man.’ But that’s when I realized, ‘Well, hey, this is my ministry. This is my mission.’ Because I loved my daddy more than anything, but strong women made me what I am.”
He says he’s proud to have been able to watch and help these women, “through their own hard work … buy houses and put kids through college and have savings funds.”
That said, running a successful family business for generations is a big responsibility. “I want my daddy to be proud that I have adhered to what he was teaching me,” Van says.
“My ultimate goal,” Van writes in his book, “is for Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q to be remembered as one of those ‘great’ businesses. I can’t think of any better way to honor my parents than for the business they worked so hard to establish will remain an important part of the business landscape of Bessemer. If it is, then I feel that I will have contributed in some way to their legacy.”
Bob Sykes Bar-B-Que
1724 9th Avenue North
Bessemer, AL 35020
Monday through Thursday: 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“Closed each and every wonderful Sunday.”