Bobby’s BBQ co-owner Tay Nelson isn’t focused on titles and awards.
He knows his brisket, ribs, and pulled pork are killer and the baked beans and other sides from family recipes are solid, but whether or not they are labeled “the best” in any category doesn’t worry him.
“Our goal is to build community. With everything going on with the world, I try to change the world, but that’s not my job. I just try to make the world a better place, one sandwich at a time. So when you walk in here, leave all that out there,” he says.
As to what that means for the customer experience?
They should come in “expecting a good meal, a safe environment, fun, laughter, and you might meet a friend – slide over, you know, make room,” he says.
In fact, that sentiment is displayed in large black letters on the first visible wall when you enter the restaurant:
Here we are all family. Slide over and make room. Meet a new friend. Give a hug and share a smile. Build a community. Welcome home.
“I love barbecue, but I love people more,” Nelson says.
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Nelson, who grew up in the Nicholtown and Simpsonville areas, and his wife, Sarah, built the newly opened restaurant at 1301 N. Main St., Fountain Inn, with the goal of providing the highest possible quality and value, while honoring Nelson’s late father and brother, Bobby and Bobby Jr. Bobby (“Pop”) and “Junior,” as Nelson calls his brother, are the namesakes of the barbecue joint.
The quality comes from sourcing good products and not skimping on the smoking process, Nelson says. With that, he’s quick to introduce Grace and Mercy, the 1,000-gallon smokers that were custom-made in Texas. At 21 feet long and weighing 3,500 pounds, these two ladies occupy half of the restaurant’s 1,800 square feet, and were a nonnegotiable for Nelson when discussing the must-haves, he says.
“You’re getting Ruth’s Chris quality at a boiled peanut shack price,” he says.
Smoking, rather than going with an electric or gas cooking method, is a labor-intensive commitment Nelson learned quickly when he first started dabbling in barbecue only two years ago.
“I like watching westerns,” he says, describing why he loves the smoking process. “The crackling of the wood, kinda like white noise, the smell of it, it’s just soothing. Every part of that process is not always enjoyable, but usually the beginning and end is great, so it helps me get through the middle. It’s work, but I just love it. I guess it’s the cowboy in me.”
Nelson had a background working in restaurants his father owned, and years before Bobby’s BBQ took shape, he began selling the special savory seasoning blend, Bobby’s All-Purpose Seasoning, his father created.
And in 2011, looking to make some cash while he was unemployed for a few months, he even set up a grill outside of the Distinguished Gentlemen II barbershop on Academy Street, selling plates of grilled chicken or fried fish and sides for $5 to customers and construction workers from the Kroc Center project.
But he hadn’t previously ventured into the barbecue realm until he got a hankering for some good smoked ribs and pork butts. He watched YouTube tutorials for months and reached out to some of the best pitmasters in the business for guidance, especially when he wanted to add Texas-style brisket to his lineup. Before the restaurant opened, he catered an event at GE, where he was previously employed, to rave reviews.
“This was a five- or 10-year plan down the road, because I was still trying to pursue a salaried position,” he says of the restaurant plan. “The seasoning was doing great, but not enough to live off of. It was sustaining itself.”
The salaried employment never panned out as he planned, so he shifted direction to opening the restaurant he had sketched out on a whim in 2015.
“The seasoning was for Pop and Junior, and it seemed like the barbecue became more like something that came from my hands,” Nelson says. “Now again, God gave me the talent, and I had a lot of help honing my craft. But there’s something about something you do with your hands, that gratification.”