Van Sykes has cooked a lot of barbecue over the years. As the second-generation owner and pit master of Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q, Van, of Hoover, knows a thing or two about how to bring the best flavors out of the meats he cooks. It’s all part of the process he learned from his father and continues to use at the restaurant, which is celebrating 61 years of business. On April 28, Van is inviting everyone to sample his barbecue and enjoy live music at the 2018 Bob Sykes BBQ & Blues Festival at DeBardeleben Park in historic downtown Bessemer. Read on to learn more about Van’s family’s special cooking techniques and his commitment to keeping the tradition alive at Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q.
Can you tell us a little about the restaurant’s history?
Van: My mom and dad, Bob and Maxine, started this in 1957 in Birmingham. They loved the food business, but it just didn’t seem to be the right thing. They sold that restaurant. My daddy had observed something that had come to town called Kentucky Fried Chicken. This would be in 1963 or 1964. KFC was saying, “If you don’t like chicken, go somewhere else,” and you ordered at the counter. It was a bold move. My daddy worked for them for about a year. He said, “We’re going to specialize in barbecue.” He had family meals, and he had really good sauce. The timing was perfect. They opened in Five Points West in 1964. In 1966, they started in Bessemer. They built the location we’re at today in 1976. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to continue doing what we’re doing for 61 years.
What makes your barbecue and your sauce so special?
Van: It’s the way I cook. In my case, the way we cook this barbecue goes back way over 100 years. My father learned in hills of western Tennessee. As a kid he just soaked it in and remembered it. I’m proud of the fact we’ve been able to take a cooking style that’s been around for 140-150 years. I think I’m selling a product that’s very artisan. Generations have eaten it. It’s very unpretentious barbecue. I start early in the morning, and we go from the barbecue pit to the plate as fast as we can because you can’t beat barbecue straight from the grill. We cook barbecue all day. Our barbecue style is the art of controlling heat. Anybody can saw some meat down and build a fire and throw it up there; not many people can keep a big concrete box at exactly 300 degrees, and not have to have a propane or natural gas or heating element. Ours is all-natural, no artificial fuel. Our barbecue pit is in the front. What you see is what you get. My daddy used to tell me, “You got to work hard for good barbecue.” My daddy’s barbecue sauce is designed to enhance the flavor. It is tomato-based and somewhat on the vinegary side. I think it’s a good representation of a Southern barbecue sauce. We serve it with a dill pickle chip on a sandwich. That sandwich was first served in 1967. I love what I do.
How did the festival get started?
Van: I was sitting around one day and realized I had a PR representative that was excellent, a food product and a connection to music here. We wanted to have a good, positive event in our community at least once a year. In year nine, everyone knows that we can do this. We can have a lot of fun and we can showcase what is really a great city that really doesn’t get a lot of positive headlines. We have a new park and a new city hall across from the park. We have everything here. We just want to get that message out that it’s a great community. This is an invitation to every person who’s Southern. We all love barbecue.
Are there any new features of this year’s festival?
Van: This year, the city of Bessemer is one of my main sponsors. Everything else is about the same. We do a lot of homework on our music. We have hundreds apply for the festival. We have local, national and international performers. One of our biggest draw areas is Hoover. We go to 8 p.m. I personally invite everyone to come out.