March 15, 2014

Barbecue restaurant owner looks to open in historic Gulf station in downtown Rock Hill

Displaced from his Cherry Road restaurant by plans for a Walmart grocery store, Rock Hill’s Mark Miller needed a new place for his barbecue smokers and his 100-piece figurine pig collection.

Displaced from his Cherry Road restaurant by plans for a Walmart grocery store, Rock Hill’s Mark Miller needed a new place for his barbecue smokers and his 100-piece figurine pig collection.

A history buff with a desire to embrace the “farm to fork” food movement, Miller says he’s found a new home in downtown Rock Hill. He plans to open the BBQ Station and Catering Company in the old Williams Gulf station – formerly the Station restaurant – on Oakland Avenue by the summer.

Miller had rented the building for his Kickin’ Pig restaurant on Cherry Road until he had no choice but to close the doors earlier this month. Walmart announced late last year that it is buying the restaurant site and some adjoining properties – for a total of about 9 acres – to build a 42,000-square-foot grocery store with a drive-thru pharmacy and a gas station.

While most of his restaurant equipment sits in storage, Miller is focused on reopening in downtown with many of the same menu items from Kickin’ Pig. He’s making plans for interior features of the BBQ Station and Catering Company that will pay tribute to the life of the nearly 80-year-old Gulf station building.

Photos in shadowboxes will give customers a historic look at Rock Hill, he said, specifically the Gulf station in its “hey-day” and the nearby textile and automotive industry buildings that once employed thousands of people in the city. Miller may also find some memorabilia and photos depicting then-Winthrop College decades ago and use old road maps to decorate part of the restaurant.

“We are trying to bring more life and good food to downtown Rock Hill,” he said, adding that he feels “entrusted with this piece of history.”

The Williams Gulf station opened in the early 1930s as a family-operated gas station that doubled as a gathering place for people in Rock Hill. Blue-collar workers could rub elbows with visiting politicians, and “movers and shakers” would “hold court” at the Gulf regularly.

Many in Rock Hill remember it as “the place to be.”

The old gas station was threatened with demolition in 1998 after Rock Hill leaders voted to tear down the building after years of vacancy and lack of upkeep. The building was in disrepair after the family closed the business in 1992 and was hit hard by Hurricane Hugo three years before.

Historic Rock Hill, a local preservation group, stepped in and spent more than $120,000 restoring the building and keeping it off the city’s demolition list.

In 2003, David and Debbie Coccia of Rock Hill, who formerly operated DC Stickies restaurants in Rock Hill and Charlotte, opened the Station restaurant at the site. That business closed in 2009.

Now, nearly five years later, Miller says the old Gulf spot needs a little “TLC” – primarily the restaurant’s outdoor area. But, he said, the restoration work and money invested in the building has made it an ideal place for him to bring his barbecue business.

He’ll be working with the city’s Board of Historic Review for approval for some of the work needed. Board members have already approved Miller’s request to build a 200-square-foot smokehouse at the back of the building.

Gulf to be gathering spot again

Miller may have up to three smokers on-site as he looks to expand the menu he used at Kickin’ Pig. He also plans to install a hickory wood-burning grill inside – which would make the BBQ Station and Catering Company one of the few restaurants in the greater Charlotte area with a wood-burning grill indoors.

All his sauces, dressings and dry rubs will still be made in house, he said. He hopes to add items such as salads, fish, burgers and inexpensive steaks.

“We want to produce good Southern cooking,” Miller said.

He also wants to join a popular trend called “farm to fork” which prioritizes locally produced or grown food on restaurant menus. From vegetables to meat, he wants to serve as much local food as he can, he said.

The restaurant also will continue to use the bar area. Miller hopes to serve many “microbrews” or craft beers on tap.

Though most of the interior is in good shape, Miller will be asking city officials’ permission to repair the restaurant’s outdoor seating area. He wants to remove the lattice – which is not a contributing historic feature to the site – and bring in planters to make the outside space more inviting.

As barbecue attracts people from all walks of life, Miller said he hopes his downtown restaurant will be similar to the gathering place that the Williams Gulf station once was. He may even buy a 1940s Gulf gas pump to place in the restaurant’s foyer. The gas station’s orange, white and blue Gulf sign still stands near the sidewalk.

Miller expects to close on the sale of the Gulf building next month, take up to four weeks to build a smokehouse and to open sometime in May.

Drawing history and barbecue lovers to downtown, Miller said, will hopefully fit in with what city leaders have said they would like to see: a walkable Main Street with retail options and restaurants that attract visitors and Winthrop students.

“It just so happens,” he said, “I think, for once, I’m in the right place at the right time.”

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