Bob Bowman will put his barbeque up against anyone else’s locally in a blind taste test. And, he says, he’ll win.
“The quality of our food,” is what Bowman said has kept Fort Mill BBQ Co. running the past seven years – despite opening at the height of the Great Recession and operating out of a location that he admits is less than ideal.
Bowman said the majority of his business is locals and regulars – with his location inside a shopping center a mile off of I-77, he’s not going to see out-of-towners dropping in for a bite to eat.
That is, unless they’re following the S.C. BBQ Trail.
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The S.C. BBQ trail is an entity of Discover South Carolina, S.C. tourism’s official website. According to the site, South Carolina prides itself on being the birthplace of barbecue, and 200 restaurants along the trail. Bowman prides himself on being the closest stop to Charlotte out of the handful of official stops in the region.
“They come from all different parts of South Carolina, from all different parts of North Carolina and others outside of either of those two states just wanting to try good slow cooked Carolina BBQ,” Bowman said.
“We do hear it quite often that (customers) have heard of us because of the S.C. BBQ Trail and our reputation apparently is for having quality ‘cue,” he said.
Bowman’s background is in the moving sales industry. In 2009, Bowman opened the business with a partner, a decision he said he regrets. Bowman lost money, he said, when he and the partner parted ways in 2010.
Shortly after, the company underwent a rebranding, which included a new logo and gradual renovations to the building. Recently, Bowman has faced complications with his heart, which he said has caused him to re-evaluate what is most important in life.
These days, he’s putting his family first and making healthier choices – such as eating a chicken salad rather than some of the other menu items.
To allow for time with his family, Fort Mill BBQ is closed on Sundays, Mondays and major holidays, he said. The restaurant is also closed the last two weeks of each year.
Bowman is married to Beverley Bowman and the couple has two children, Alana, 9 and Brody, 6.
Bowman said he and Beverley – the former Nation Ford High principal who recently left to fill an assistant superintendent position in the York School District – “love each other to death.”
“I’m one of those restauranteurs who tries to balance work and life,” Bowman said. “It ain’t about money to me anymore. My priorities have changed a lot.”
Most restaurants fail, Bowman said, and many restaurant owners’ marriages dissolve largely due to the long hours and stress of the restaurant life.
“Happy wife, happy life,” Bowman said. “I’ve learned that.”
Bowman has a great staff, he said, whom he trusts to operate the restaurant effectively.
“Larry’s a regular along with his family here,” Bowman said, as he interacts with customers. Larry being Larry Jackson. Jackson was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, more than 11 years ago.
The restaurant minces Jackson’s BBQ as a special request. They are happy to do it, Bowman said.
“Very good barbecue,” Jackson said.
“We’ve gotta get our fix,” said Anthony Birdsong, Jackson’s caretaker.
The restaurant showcases newspaper clippings on the walls from the Fort Mill Times, The Charlotte Observer and Creative Loafing. A large wall with a mural shows the stops along the S.C. BBQ Trail. Dozens of plaques from Cruise-Ins, car enthusiast nights that FM BBQ hosts once monthly in the summer, line the walls, as well as a few spotlights of Fort Mill and South Carolina history.
Bowman is planning to expand the Fort Mill history part, in the form of a timeline along the right wall starting with to the town’s founding.
“Fort Mill’s going to get more barbecue restaurants as it grows, that’s just a fact. But I want people to know that this one is dear to the roots of the town.”
When the restaurant was founded, Bowman said he and his former partner talked about making Fort Mill BBQ a franchise, but Bowman ultimately decided he just wants to be one place and “do it right.”
“We’ve worked hard to get here. I don’t have to be big. I enjoy being small.”
When Beverly took the job in York, Bowman said the couple thought about moving. They quickly decided against it.
“We said, ‘No. Here’s where we’ve made our roots,” Bowman said. “I want to endear myself to the town.”
Life for Bowman now is about living and enjoying his family. And Fort Mill, he says, is the perfect place to do that.
“I treat people as I would want to be treated. We have an incredible (local base.) Regulars that always come in. That’s what I love about this town.”