98-year-old closing popular Rock Hill BBQ business after 55 years
For 55 years, Memorial Day weekend in Rock Hill has meant the unofficial start of summer. And one other calendar tradition: Pete's BBQ.
This year, summer will begin. Barbecue will be sold Memorial Day weekend at Pete's. Friday, Saturday and Monday. But after Memorial Day, the tradition of Pete's ends
At age 98, founder Pete Wheeles has decided that this weekend is the end of an era that covered Presidents Kennedy to Trump, rotary dial phones to cellphones.
"We had a good run, a great run, we made a thousand friends," Wheeles said. "Tens of thousands of friends. What great people you meet selling them good barbecue. But things have to end. This is the end."
Pete's BBQ has sold to-go pounds of chopped or sliced pork, sauce, and all the fixings on Memorial Day weekend, around the July 4 holiday, and Labor Day weekend every year since 1963. Lines can back up along India Hook Road north of Celanese Road to the point that deputies some years were hired to help move the traffic. Wheeles has cooked as much as 15,000 pounds of pork, five tons, for a weekend.
And that doesn't even count the mountains of ribs.
Or the gallons of secret barbecue sauce.
But never on Sunday.
The Lord rested on Sunday, and so does Wheeles.
"No Sundays," Wheeles said. "My late wife said no Sundays, and there was no negotiatin'. "
Wheeles' wife, Rachel, died almost 20 years ago but Pete still honors her no Sunday sales policy.
A World War II Navy combat veteran who served in the Civilian Conservation Corps before the war, Wheeles turned a barbecue hobby taught by his father and grandfather into a business of buildings and cookers and pits.
"We started out helping the community with fundraisers and never stopped," Wheeles said. 'I worked at the Rock Hill Printing and Finshing Bleachery textile mill, then Celanese mill, and I cooked for people. Half a hog, maybe, at the beginning. I just then turned it into something that people wanted and kept coming back for. It grew because it was good."
The meat is all smoked over hickory and oak wood, as it always has been.
"Special smell and flavor, hickory and oak," Wheeles said. "If there is a better smell in the world than pork over hickory and oak, I never smelled it. You get something right, you don't fix what isn't broke."
Even though it is not a year-around business, it's a food business nonetheless and Pete's BBQ is inspected by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Yet there is no electronic menu or cash register. The menu looks like an antique. The cash register is an antique.
"We just cook good food and smile," Wheeles said. "World has changed a lot but we think that the old ways sometimes are pretty darn good."
Some customers have come for 30, 40, even all 50-plus years, said Jean Horton, Wheeles' special friend the last 16 years.
"You see the faces come back year after year, holiday after holiday, it makes you feel good that people believe you are a part of their lives," Horton said. "We will miss this."
Wheeles himself puts it like this: 'Our family gets awful big every holiday in the summertime. Big as Rock Hill."
Wheeles hires more than 20 people for each barbecue session of cooking and serving leading up to the holidays. But Pete's is not a buy a plate, sit and eat spot. There is no seating. People buy food to go, carry it out to vehicles, and leave.
But: Yes. Some people have sat right in their driver's seat and eaten while parked along the side of the road.
"Some people just have to eat some before they deliver it to everybody hungry at home," winked Wheeles.
Pete's, at 3083 India Hook Road, opens at 7 a.m the days it operates. The line usually is already dozens deep by 7 a.m.
"I sometimes heave to tell people to just be patient," chuckled Jean Horton. "They come hungry."
Over the decades, readers of The Herald have said in stories covered at Pete's that his food is terrific and the community tradition as important as any in the area. Since the onset of social media a few years ago, people now use Facebook and other ways to say what Pete's BBQ means to stomach and heart.
The news that Memorial Day weekend Weekend hit Facebook like a hammer. Despair ran rampant online.
One woman from Savannah, Ga, who grew up in Rock Hill an drives all the way to her hometown just for Pete's BBQ, vowed to come back one last time.
Others called it "the end of an era."
One person commented: "Say it isn't so!"
Carolina Panthers football team minority owner and businessman Ell Close, a York County native and restaurant owner, said he has for "at least 35 years" been one of the first in line at Pete's on holiday weekends. Close brings a bunch of five-gallon tubs to fill and not just eat, but give to family and friends.
"People line up down the road for Pete's BBQ and there is a reason," Close said. "The barbecue is the best there ever was."
Close said as busy as he is, his own desk calendar already had Memorial Day weekend circled with a note: "Go to Pete's Friday before 7."
"Barbecue at Pete's is a York County tradition," Close said. "Great food. Great people. It is part of who we are here in York County."
That tradition is about to end.
When Close heard that Pete's was closing, he said this: "You can't have Memorial Day without Pete's. I might be there before 6 the first day."
Pete Wheeles, who started that tradition, and ends it, has not a single regret except that age and the calendar has caught up with him and his tradition will end..
"We cooked and laughed made people happy and fed them," Wheeles said. "Sounds like a recipe. That's a recipe for what we used to call community."
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065, @AndrewDysHerald