The Tradition


Van SykesFor Van Sykes, his family’s barbecue restaurant in Bessemer is more than a livelihood. It is a way to keep a beloved tradition alive.

By Joe O’Donnell

Photo by Lindsey Griffin

 

Van Sykes remembers watching his father as a kid as his dad worked in the barbecue restaurant. “I would look at his hands while he worked as any kid might, focusing on the movements he was making,” Sykes says. “Now, years later, I realize that I was learning a part of an old tradition. And, I think to myself, whose hands did my father watch? When you think back to how far back this tradition goes, it really is awesome.”

Sykes can look out over the dining room at this landmark restaurant in Bessemer and see the generations: Parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, all gathered together to take part in a tradition that stretches back decades.

Bob and Maxine Sykes opened their first restaurant in the West End Birmingham neighborhood of Central Park back in 1955, the same year Van was born. By the 1960s, Bob Sykes was trying to discover the best way to develop his business. “The first thing my daddy observed in the 1960s was the early Kentucky Fried Chicken stores,” Sykes says. “He realized that the Colonel was saying, ‘We have chicken. If you don’t want chicken, go somewhere else, because that is all we have.’ My daddy took that general idea and focused it on barbecue. Specialization was the word, but it was radical in 1965. My parents opened their barbecue place in Five Points West in 1965 with everything you see here today, including a drive-through. My daddy had the first drive-through I had ever seen. That was back in 1967.

“The menu I have today, 80 percent of it anyway, was at that restaurant in Five Points West,” he says. “And just like today, everything was designed to be self-serve.”

Van Sykes finds a tantalizing blend of old and new in his work. The front of the house, the service and systems, are as up to date as anywhere. The back of the house, where the food is cooked, harks back to the decades-old traditional methods of cooking barbecue.

“The food has not really changed at all,” Sykes says. “When I began going to Southern Foodways seminars, I realized that people around the country were amazed that we get up at three in the morning and come down here and make a fire, the old-fashioned way. We have never put in a smoker. I want an authentic, historical product. You could almost call it artisan barbecue.

“You have to know what to change and what not to change,” he says. “There would be a lot easier way to cook this barbecue. I could cook it yesterday and reheat it today. I could cave in and hide a smoker in the back and cook it overnight, then bring it in here and make everyone think I did it the old-fashioned way. But that is not my charge. My charge is to keep it going the way it has always been.

“I want to keep the authenticity of barbecue because it is a family tradition, and I don’t want that to go away,” he explains. “If we lose people like me who cook over real hot coals, then it is lost forever. That’s what keeps me happy and motivated, along with finding new markets and enjoying, enjoying, enjoying capitalism. I love free markets and competition.”

Sykes’s mother, Maxine, is 92 now and still comes into the restaurant occasionally. His father had a stroke at age 55, back when Van was 14 years old and the company was growing, with 13 franchises. He lived to be 77 and came to the restaurant to sit and socialize for about 15 years after he had the stroke. “Dot Brown was the heart and soul of the kitchen for all of those years. She helped us come up with our lemon pie, and her and my daddy developed the cole slaw recipe we still use,” Sykes says. “She also had carte blanche to spank me whenever necessary. She popped me good, but I deserved it.”

In addition to the recipes, Sykes still keeps his family’s business practices in place. “My momma was the best at business,” he says. “She told me, ‘The customers will tell you what they want if you just shut your mouth and listen to them.’ Because of that advice, I realized people want a good quality smoked ham and a great turkey breast. That is just from listening to people who come in here. I still want to be able to find growth for the store, so that I am not just stuck in time. The entrepreneur in me is always looking for other markets. I did more than 200 turkey breasts at Thanksgiving, and my ham business is getting better and better. My momma told me that business is like a bicycle—if it is not moving, it is just going to fall over. It has to be moving, preferably forward. I have always felt an obligation to grow it for the employees who have been here for 40 years.”

For Van Sykes, the barbecue business really comes down to relationships, with customers and coworkers, creating a place that holds something special, a sense of authenticity. “This is a one- of-a-kind place,” he says. “I had tried to duplicate it, and then came to the realization that there are some things you cannot duplicate. The Bright Star, for example. There are just restaurants that are what they are, and where they are, and who they are. You cannot pick it up and move it somewhere with any guarantee that it is going to work.”

Sykes feels the same way about Bessemer, the community that surrounds his restaurant. “People are proud of this place, and I am too,” he says. That pride led him to create the Bob Sykes BBQ and Blues Festival, which will celebrate its fifth birthday on May 31, 2014, at DeBardeleben Park in downtown Bessemer. The festival has a relaxed atmosphere for the entire family to enjoy a variety of true blues musicians. Tickets can be purchased on the website or at Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q Restaurant. A portion of the proceeds benefit local charities. Donations were made in 2013 to the Bessemer Education Enhancement Foundation, Hands On Birmingham, and the Magic City Blues Society.

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