Hitting the road to pay homage to a lost BBQ icon, Michael Bessinger contemplates his own place in an ever-changing industry
by Lorne Chambers | Editor
In just a few months, Bessinger’s Barbecue on Savannah Highway will celebrate 80 years in business. Michael Bessinger feels the weight of those eight decades of history and his family’s legacy on his shoulders. He also feels the strain of a changing industry that chases trends and whatever new shiny thing that pops up.
“The industry itself has changed. But Charleston has changed too. Charleston is so food-oriented now and it has become such a melting pot for barbecue,” says Michael.
Several of the newer barbecue restaurants who are now showing up on various “Best South Carolina Barbecue” lists or being heaped with accolades aren’t really making what most purists would consider “traditional South Carolina barbecue.” Take the very popular Lewis Barbecue for instance. Hailing from Austin, pitmaster John Lewis was a darling of the Texas Barbecue scene before he opened his restaurant downtown, renowned for its mouth-watering Texas-style brisket. While delicious, it’s not South Carolina barbecue.
“Nothing against what anybody else is in town is doing. I’m friends with most of these guys and eat at their restaurants all the time. We’re a brotherhood. We cook with shovels. We don’t cook with paring knives,” says Bessinger.
“I just have such an appreciate for the older generation. I love tradition. I love old school South Carolina barbecue. And that’s why I love what Rodney Scott does so much. He does ‘old school’ South Carolina barbecue,” says Bessinger, referring to the James Beard Award-winning pitmaster from Hemingway, who now has a downtown location.
“Again, I love all these other places and competition is good. Iron sharpens iron. But we’re not steeped in ‘trendy,’ we’re steeped in ‘old school’ barbecue,” says Michael, who uses that term “old school” often when talking about traditional South Carolina barbecue, which enthusiast and historians will tell you, varies greatly from North Carolina-style, St. Louis-style, Texas-style, and other styles from notable barbecue regions around of the country.
“I feel like there will always be an appreciation for what we do, but in order to hit that 100 year mark, we’re going to have to do some things different,” says Michael, who along with his older brother Tommy, run the West Ashley institution and giant of the South Carolina barbecue scene.
One of the things Michael is doing differently is that after years of consideration, last month he made the tough call to close the weekend buffet portion of the business. The move drew outcry on social media and even prompted some news outlets to incorrectly proclaim the restaurant was going out of business completely. But nothing has changed on the regular restaurant side of Bessinger’s Barbecue, what they call the “Sandwich Shop.” No, Bessinger’s isn’t going anywhere anytime soon … not if Michael can help it.
“If I had to pinpoint one goal in my life right now, it’s to get us to the 100 year mark,” says Michael who lives in West Ashley with his wife and three children. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to continue on with the legacy of an old school South Carolina barbecue family.”
Michael and Tommy’s father is barbecue legend Thomas Bessinger Sr., who is listed on the company’s website as “retired,” but is still very much involved in the day-to-day operations and is a fixture at the Savannah Highway restaurant.
“He’s a tough cookie. Never, ever complains. And he never, ever quits,” says Michael, who has learned a lot from his hard-working father, who turns 87 this month. Michael began filling up bottles of Bessinger’s renowned mustard-based gold sauce at the restaurant when he was just a kid. By the time he was 13 years old he officially joined the business bussing tables. By 20 years old, he was managing the restaurant.
Today, at 42, Michael is an owner but still does a little bit of everything around the restaurant, whether it’s tending to the pit, flipping burgers, bussing tables, and he’s still filling up bottles of sauce. Even while driving down the road, he’s working — talking to the restaurant’s managers and battling with distributors over rising prices and delivery. If he ever thinks about slacking off, even for a minute, he knows Thomas Sr. is somewhere close by to remind him to get back to work.
On Tuesday, Sept. 18 Thomas Sr. proved why he was once known as the “hardest working man in the Charleston restaurant industry.” Just days after Hurricane Florence forced the restaurant to close for several days, the Bessingers decided to offer half-off cheeseburgers in honor of National Cheeseburger Day.
As hundreds of patrons poured through the doors, Thomas Sr. didn’t hesitate, grabbing a spatula and jumping in to help Michael and his staff in the kitchen. That day they cranked out hundreds of Bessinger’s famous burgers, which have become nearly as legendary as the restaurant’s pulled pork and giant onion rings.
The very next morning Michael woke up, climbed into his white Ford F-150, and pointed it west/northwest. He was setting out on a pilgrimage of sorts. Fellow legendary S.C. barbecue joint Jackie Hite’s Bar-b-que in Leesville had just announced that, after four decades, it would be closing its doors for good in just a few days, sending shockwaves within the barbecue scene.
James Lee “Jackie” Hite himself had passed away two years earlier and the closing of the restaurant marked an end of an era in Batesburg-Leesville and the greater South Carolina barbecue community. Michael wanted to pay his respects and have one last taste of some of the region’s most iconic ’cue.
“The barbecue industry is different now. A lot of the places that helped make the scene here in South Carolina are closing down and I want to experience them before they’re gone,” laments Michael from behind the wheel en route to Leesville. Michael says he plans to hit several more of what he calls “old school South Carolina barbecue” places in the coming months.
“There’s such a heritage of barbecue places in South Carolina and there’s such a history in South Carolina where barbecue originated,” says Michael, who is clearly in the corner that South Carolina was the first to slow cook pork over a fire, thus making us the originators of barbecue. It’s a much-debated claim but one that is convincingly laid out in A History of South Carolina Barbeque by Lake High, president of the South Carolina Barbeque Association, which also created stickers that say “Birthplace of Barbecue,” featuring a blue pig with the South Carolina flag on it.
Whether you accept the Palmetto State as the originators of barbecue or not, there’s no debating that South Carolina has a barbecue history that’s every bit as rich as our famous mustardy sauce. And while Jackie Hite’s Bar-b-que is a big part of that history, you just simply cannot talk about South Carolina’s barbecue history without the name Bessinger coming up again and again.
But it’s a complicated history, particular when it comes to the Bessinger family itself. “They all think they are the creators of it all,” says Michael about his dad’s brothers and all of their offspring. “So I just say, all the brothers had Piggie Parks at some point in time.”
Michael’s grandfather “Big” Joe Bessinger opened the original restaurant Joe’s Diner in Holly Hill in 1939. Since then, several members of the family have owned their own competing barbecue restaurants, including Thomas, Melvin, Maurice, J.D., Woodrow, and Robert. There are still two Melvin’s Barbecue restaurants in the Charleston area, one on James Island and the other in Mt. Pleasant. Robert’s Bar B Que still has a location in North Charleston, and there are still a dozen Maurice’s Piggie Parks, 11 located in or around the Columbia area and one in Santee.
There are factions, divisions, messy family disagreements, and worse when it comes to what many consider the “First Family of South Carolina Barbecue.” This is something that isn’t lost on Michael as he drives up I-26 on his way to Leesville, passing billboard after billboard advertising for several of Maurice’s Piggie Parks along the route.
Unlike Michael’s father Thomas, Maurice Bessinger was a boisterous and gregarious man who advocated for segregation and unapologetically flew the Confederate battle flag over his restaurants after it was removed from the State House capital dome in 2000. Maurice distributed confederate and racist literature and propaganda at his establishments, even after bottles of Maurice’s Barbecue Sauce were pulled from grocery store shelves and the NAACP called for a boycott.
When Maurice died in 2013, his kids removed all Confederate paraphernalia from the restaurants and took down the flags. But it’s a blight that all the restaurants that bare Maurice’s name will likely never shake.
It’s also something that has affected Bessinger’s Barbecue here in Charleston, despite having nothing to do with it. Long ago, the brothers had grown apart either through business disagreements or for other reasons. Thomas and Maurice had difference in personalities and fundamental differences in opinions, particularly when it came to mixing politics and business. But the fact that they shared a last name has occasionally haunted Bessinger’s BBQ over the years.
According to Michael, people still wrongfully associate the two restaurants. He says the confusion has resulted in death threats for him and his family as well as boycott attempts of his restaurant over the years.
To make things worse, the head of the South Carolina Secessionist Party has the last name Bessenger. He has absolutely no relation and his name is even spelled differently (there’s an “e” instead of an “i” in the middle). But that doesn’t stop people from associating the two every time the Secessionist Party ends up somewhere waiving a Confederate battle flag.
But on this particular day, as he turns off of I-26 and onto I-20, Michael doesn’t want to talk about his “crazy Uncle” Maurice or the damn flag anymore. He doesn’t want to talk about misidentifications, misassociations, or unfortunate coincidences. He doesn’t want to talk about his famous family’s feuds. Instead he’s focused on a different family — the greater South Carolina Barbecue family, especially those longstanding restaurants that dot the Yellow Sauce Road from Charleston to Greenville. A road his father and his grandfather before him helped pave.
As he turns his truck off of I-20 at Exit 44 towards Batesburg-Leesville, his mind is on Jackie Hite’s Bar-b-que and the ending of an era. It’s been about 20 years since he last ate here and he was sad this would be his last. But he’s hungry and so he’s going to make it count.
Crossing over the railroad tracks and into the parking lot where Jackie Hite’s is located, there are cars and trucks parked up and down the street. The place is packed with locals and barbecue enthusiasts from as far away as Michigan, who made the journey to tiny Leesville, S.C. to have one last taste before Sunday, Sept. 21 when the doors at Jackie Hite’s Bar-b-que would close forever. It also was the two-year anniversary of the death of the restaurant’s beloved namesake.
Walking inside the old white building is like walking back in time. The wooden buffet is filled with steam trays of pulled pork, hash and rice, and traditional barbecue sides, such as green beans, limas beans, cole slaw, and black-eyed peas. There’s a largemouth bass mounted on the wall behind the buffet. There are photos of Jackie around the restaurant. A dry erase board reads: “Sunday Sept. 23 is our last day here at Jackie Hite’s BBQ. Thanks for the last 39 years. — The Jackie Hite Family … Happy Retirement Mickey Hite!”
Michael grabs a Styrofoam plate, bellies up to the buffet, and piles his plate high with perfectly-smoked pulled pork drenched in tangy mustard sauce. Jackie’s is a tad more vinegary than his slightly sweeter sauce, which has garnered praise from everyone from Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern to the New York Times. But it’s still mighty tasty. The hash and rice is simply perfect. The fried chicken is on point. But it all tastes just a little bittersweet because this will be the last time Michael will ever have this particular version of a style of barbecue that his family helped make famous.
On the drive back to Charleston Michael is a little more contemplative. “The fact we’ve been around for 80 years. That carries a lot of weight for me,” he says. “It’s a privilege to have gone this far, especially when you see a place like this that’s closing up after 40 years. That’s why my brother and I have such a weight on our shoulders to carry on this tradition.”