Sonny's Real Pit BBQ

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Barbecue is one of the National Restaurant Association's fastest growing market segments, and Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q is the category's national leader. The barbecue segment is comprised primarily of single-store operations, with Sonny's being one of the few chains of any significant size. Of the present 97 Sonny's restaurants, nine are company owned and operated. The newest Sonny's opened April 6,1998 in Eustis, Florida, but it's a story that begins decades earlier.

In 1968, in Gainesville, Florida, Floyd "Sonny" Tillman and his wife Lucille founded Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q . They did pretty well with it, too. In 1977 Sonny started franchising the restaurant. During the next 12 years Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q expanded throughout Florida and other southeast states. Then, in 1991, Mr. Tillman retired and the company was purchased by Sonny's franchisee owners Bob and Jeff Yarmuth. That's when things really started heating up.

To learn Sonny's secret, a couple of inquisitive minds (known to lick our fingers on occasion) lit out from the BBQ U campus. We went straight to the source, Mr. Jeff Yamuth, VP and COO of Sonny's Franchise Company.

How long have you been using the Southern Pride Smoker in your restaurant?

We've been using Southern Pride from the start. Don Staley showed us the smoker back in the 70s. We looked at others, but they didn't compare. The Southern Pride Smoker was quality built. It maintains an even temperature, which is important to the way we prepare our meat. Because our core pro
ducts are wood-smoked barbecue beef, pork, chicken and ribs, we needed a cooker that would consistently produce the Sonny's flavor profile.

Our food has to be right all the time. It has to be the best. We serve a wide variety of customers, and they know they can find a lot of barbecue in the South. If we don't make certain we're serving the best barbecue around, they'll go somewhere else.

Are Southern Pride Smokers in all your restaurants?

In our company owned restaurants, yes. And most of our franchisees have either put them in as original equipment or switched to them. There are some other smokers out there, but I imagine that, when the time comes to replace them, they'll change to Southern Pride.

The Southern Pride Smoker is just well suited to our needs. It accommodates the special way we do our cooking. First, we baste our meat in Sonny's proprietary sauce. Then, we cook it very slowly over a hardwood fire, smoking it with Black Jack Oak, which is native to the South and provides the flavor that appeals to our customers. And that's it. ' We cook it up slow and serve it fast and friendly .' That's our secret, and Southern Pride helps us keep it.

What else appeals to you about the Southern Pride Smoker?
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The engineering. It's easy to operate and clean. When routine maintenance has to be done, our restaurant managers can usually handle it. Or it can be done easily by a local appliance man.

Another thing that appeals to us is that the Southern Pride people understand how we do business . They know that if our smoker is down, we're out of business. So they're really good about getting us parts if and when they're needed, and they do it fast.

The service and the relationship is very reliable. When we call, we never get that 'we'll get back to you next week' routine.

If some other restaurant owner called to get your opinion on the Southern Pride Smoker, what would you say?

A competitor? I'd say it's lousy! You don't expect me to give away the store, do you?

Seriously... I'd say simply that it's a good product that works well, is reliable, and is backed up by good people. It's not the least expensive smoker on the market –but for our money it's the best value.

It's also valuable to know, when they tell you they're going to do something, they'll do it. They don't make promises they can't keep. They're totally committed to helping us make our business a success.

Now I have a question for you...How do you like those ribs?

So that was that. The BBQ U crew headed home with the knowledge that the secret behind the success of Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q is Southern Pride Smokers. Oh, okay, that isn't the only secret, but it IS a big part of their success.