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Smoking With Tradition

Van Sykes, right, stands with Jason Jewell in front of the barbecue pit and kitchen at Bob Sykes BBQ in Bessemer. Sykes and Jewell are the second and third generation, respectively, to run the restaurant that has been a family business since 1957.

Watch the fire and tend the grill — that’s what it all comes down to for good barbecue.

At least that’s what Van Sykes, the second generation owner-operator of Bob Sykes BBQ, says.

The Hoover resident has been part of the restaurant business pretty much as long as he can remember. In 1957 his parents bought in to the restaurant business, serving hamburgers and malts at first and eventually moving into the full-service market.

“Nobody knew what to do, really, so what you did is you did a little bit of everything,” he said.

Sykes is one of the founding members of the Southern Foodways Alliance and has lived in Hoover since 1994.

His first job, beginning long before he turned 10 years old, was stirring barbecue sauce.

He remembers standing in his parents’ restaurant the day Kennedy was assassinated, being a carhop in the days when trays were still affixed to car windows for service and when the idea of specializing in one type of food was laughable.

There was a brief time when his parents, who would one day run more than a dozen franchised barbecue joints, also thought the concept of specializing as a restaurant would mean certain failure.

However, after taking a couple years off due to financial issues and working in a certain fried chicken restaurant made famous by a colonel in white, Sykes said his father had an idea.

“What he realized, which of course still works today — I call this the cornerstone thought — you can specialize in one kind of food,” he said, and his parents decided that food would be slow-smoked meat.

Eventually, Sykes said, he moved from the kitchen to helping his mother with the front-of-house work, and at age 14, when his father had a stroke, he became second in command.

“She said ‘I’ll run the day shift, you run the night shift, you’ll go to school and drive your daddy’s car,’” he said.

Sykes took a break from the restaurant business at age 18 because his mother wanted him to experience something else. He joined the Air Force in 1973 and served for four years working as a purchasing agent.

Eventually, though, he was pulled back in and took over the business, reducing the footprint to just one store.

The Bob Sykes BBQ that exists today on 9th Avenue North in Bessemer is far from the original concept of a 15-seat shack with an open pit. In 1990, he closed the store for six weeks to expand it to its current size, and that building has lasted ever since.

The key, he said, is to stay focused on what works.

“Barbecue will never be any better than taking it off a grill, and cutting it and serving it,” he said. “It’s hard to do when you’re cooking 2,000 pounds in a day, but we’ve got 61 years experience. You know when to cook and when to slow down.”

Sykes said he is proud to serve only fresh, homemade food, and is happy his nephew Jason Jewell has come on board as the third generation.

“A lot of times, I’m told, that second generation is the one that messes everything up,” he said. “So I’ve felt quite proud that I’ve been able to grow it.”Hoover Sun Article

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Announcing the City of Bessemer and Metro PCS are presenting the Bob Sykes BBQ & Blues Festival

Barbecue and Blues are a great combination so start planning for the 9th Annual Bob Sykes BBQ & Blues Festival presented by the City of Bessemer and Metro PCS are set for Saturday, April 28, 2018. The event will combine the best of blues music and legendary Bob Sykes BBBQ at the beautiful DeBardeleben Park located in historic downtown Bessemer, Alabama from 12-8pm.
Gates open at 11am. You can expect to hear talented award winning local and national blues musicians. Be sure to bring a chair or blanket and set-up your spot for the day.

Since 2010, the event has been filled with thousands of festival goers. Attendees of the festival range from youth to adults.
2nd generation owner and pit master of Bob Sykes Bar B Q Van Sykes says “Each year the festival grows and we couldn’t do it without our sponsors and the support of the community.” City of Bessemer Mayor Kenneth Gulley says “The Bob Sykes BBQ and Blues Festival has been a great event for the city of Bessemer. It brings visitors to our city from across the state, southeast and even internationally. We’re proud that this festival will continue to be held in Bessemer and we’re looking forward to many more great years of barbecue and blues music in downtown Bessemer.”
The festival has been chosen for numerous years as one of the top food festivals in Alabama. There is something to do for the entire family including a large kids corner with activities and games. Children twelve and under are free with a ticketed adult. Besides great music and BBQ the festival offers a variety of booths including arts and crafts, outdoor exhibits, and a diverse selection of vendors selling tempting offers.

General admission tickets can be purchased at or visit Bob Sykes Bar B Q Restaurant. Since 2010, the festival has provided funding for local charities and this year Bob Sykes has chosen Latch and Live Foundation as the charity. The foundation rebuilds lives and provides help to impoverished families of Bessemer and surrounding cities.

Event Location:
DeBardeleben Park
1623 2nd Avenue North
Bessemer, AL 35020


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Southern Foodways Alliance


Bob Sykes BarB-Q


(205) 426-1400

Originally from Cumberland City, Tennessee, Bob Sykes grew up in the country, experiencing hog killings and learning to smoke hams. As a young man during the Depression, Bob set out for Birmingham, seeking opportunity in the big city. He worked a series of different jobs. He married. And in 1956 he and his wife Maxine decided that they’d like to work together. They sold their house and their car to buy a small neighborhood café called The Ice Spot. Their gamble paid off. Bob found he had a knack for cooking, and Maxine was a great manager. Their son, Van, was a toddler at the time, getting on-the-job-training. Before long, hamburgers gave way to barbecue and a tradition was born. Five decades later, Van carries on his late father’s legacy. Through different locations, franchises, and changing tastes, Bob Sykes BarB-Q has stood the test of time. As Van is quick to say, “Where other restaurants have branches, we have roots.” And their’s are roots that run deep in Birmingham’s barbecue tradition.Maxine Sykes passed away on January 17, 2015 at the age of 93.

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Maxine and Van Sykes -

[Van’s] daddy [Bob] had a stroke and that, you know—he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk, he couldn’t even sit up for months and months and—but I kept—I was determined to keep the business going because I knew I wanted to keep his name going. And so I worked hard to take care of him, take care of Van, and keep the business going.


Not many people appreciate the dynamic of just salt, meat, fire—that’s it. I would love to have some convoluted thing that I could tell you I’m doing out there. I’m not. I mean it’s just—it’s a time-honored thing. But you know what? It’s almost too simple. By gosh, I wish it was just, you know, rub this for two hours and turn this over but it’s just real simple and that’s the genius, you know.

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Bob Sykes Pecan Pie Recipe | Since 1957

Prepared by Van Sykes

  • Set aside an unbaked 9” pie crust
  • Combine 4 TBSP Soften Butter with ¾ cup of firmly packed Light Brown Sugar and cream (or whole milk) and blend until smooth
  • In a separate bowl, whip 3 whole eggs with a whisk and blend with the butter and sugar
  • Next, add 1 tbsp cornstarch and 1/8 tsp of salt into the mixture and stir in 2 tsp of vanilla extract
  • Next, blend in3/4 cup of good quality dark cane sugar
  • Then, add 1 cup pecan pieces
  • When all ingredients are thoroughly mixed; pour into the pie crust and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes
  • Then, bake at 300 degrees for 30 more minutes or until the center is firm. Serve warm

The pecan-named by the Indians is a variety of the American hickory nut. Thomas Jefferson raised pecan trees and helped George Washington start them at Mt. Vernon.

It is said that the wife of a corporate executive first produced the pecan mixture in a pie shell.

Recipes were not found in the region until about 65 to 70 years ago. There were molasses pies without pecans.

No one is sure where the combination was first put together but once it did; it spread quickly. By 1940 most southern cookbooks had a pecan pie recipe.

Light corn syrup is syrup seasoned with vanilla flavor and salt.

Dark corn syrup is a combination of molasses, caramel color and flavor salt.