When a restaurant has served the community for 45 years, there is something special at play behind the counter.
“It’s been about consistency, the best ingredients we can find and the family atmosphere that we want every employee to experience,” Bar-B-Que King co-owner Keith Smith said. “We work really hard to accommodate our employees and their schedules and to make their work experience as good as we possibly can. Happy employees make happy customers, I think.”
The doors opened in September 1971, six years before Smith began working in the restaurant as a teenager.
Co-owners and original ownership stakeholders Steve and Becky Abernethy started the business with the late Richard Jenkins.
“He knew the business and I had the land at the time,” Steve Abernethy said. “It was a good partnership.”
The three parcels of land that make up the facility today once served as residential space that occupied two homes. The current facility was erected solely for the purpose of the restaurant.
When the doors opened, Abernethy remembers being busy, right out of the gate.
“It was well received by the community,” he said. “We were busy and it was definitely difficult work and we kept at it and there were times in the early years that I would have been better off financially working two shifts at a mill. We were determined and we were going to stick with it and I’m glad that we did.”
Abernethy said that there have been so many quality people come through the restaurant over the years.
“I could make you a list but it would take all day long,” he said. “Lincoln County has been good to us and so have the surrounding counties.”
Abernethy said the opportunity for franchising has come up multiple times over the years but ownership has been apprehensive in that regard.
“It was hard enough for us to keep one running the way it should operate,” he said. “There were times that people came to me wanting to spread it out but I never did and maybe I should have but I’m really happy with where we are today and I’m proud of it.”
Abernethy, whose father, Clyde, helped out in the restaurant in the early years, said his business partner has been a model of consistency for him.
“He has been more than my right arm,” he said of Keith Smith. “I love him and he has been so good through the years. I love so many of our people.”
Smith’s sons, Jared and Jordan, are both working in the business. The brothers were smoking pork shoulders early on Wednesday morning beside their father and Abernethy’s daughter, Stephanie Teague, who also works in the family business.
Evidence of employees who enjoy their work life can be found throughout the building on any given day. Kelly Lineberger, who serves multiple roles that include front-of-house management responsibilities, has been employed by the company for 32 years.
“My best friend was working here, it was when they had opened this new part (dining area),” she said. “We are all family here. We see them more than we see our family at home. The atmosphere is what keeps me here.”
Both of Lineberger’s sons have worked in the restaurant. One has since graduated college and the other has just begun his collegiate experience. Her 15-year-old daughter is about to begin her term in the business.
“I can’t do as much as I used to because I am older now,” Lineberger said with a smile. “I still feel like a teenager on some days.”
A smokehouse used to be located in the center of the parking lot before a golf cart carried employees back and forth to a building located on the east end of the property, where meat is smoked to house standards and prep work is done. A pit was located in the dining room until 1987 when health regulations forced a change. The restaurant still smokes over fresh hickory wood coals daily. No electricity or gas is used for the smoking process.
“One of the things I remember most was that we used to do all of our prep work in (the main building),” Teague said. “That would be impossible today. I remember as a kid watching the ladies make gallons and gallons of tea before we had a teamaker.”
Prior to his ownership stake in the business, Keith Smith attended college and earned a degree in mechanical engineering but decided to pursue his passion at Bar-B-Que King.
“Steve asked me to stay on the day I graduated college,” he said. “I knew I wanted to stay here while I was in school. It was more important to me to work in a field that I really enjoyed and I truly enjoy this work. It was important to me to have a flexible schedule that allowed me to raise my kids and attend everything that they were involved in. Steve has allowed me to do that.”
The large dining area that is often full of hungry customers today was added in 1986.
“We don’t skimp on anything and buy the best product that we can get our hands on,” Smith said. “We hand patty fresh ground beef and we use all-natural pork whole shoulders.”
The restaurant makes its own onion rings, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese and sauces. For slaw, an industrial sized Hobart grinder minces 50 pounds of cabbage at a time while making at least three batches a day. Nearly 200 pounds of hand chopped and pattied ground chuck are used for a typical weekday. Homemade sweet tea, according to the employees, is as important to a good barbecue sandwich as the meat that goes in it. Recent additions to the menu like smoked wings and red slaw have been a hit. The traditional barbecue burgers and onion rings are still the best selling items.
Today, the business is still closed on Sundays.
“That is something that we have maintained and we’ll continue to observe that,” said Smith, who proposed to his wife, Kelly Hoyle, in the dining room of Bar-B-Que King, where she also worked at the time.
The business currently has about 40 employees, including nine sets of siblings.
Manager Jordan Smith said a strong social media presence has boosted the business and allowed it to reach new customers.
“I can post something and reach 3,000 people instantly and we have seen the results from that,” he said. “I created our website in 2014 and I’ve been really active on social media since last year. We’ve got 9,000 ‘likes’ and most of those are organic. We give out random gift certificates for specific likes or shares. We’ve had a big response to that.”
Find the business on Facebook or visit barbqkingnc.com. Bar-B-Que King is located at 2613 East Main Street in Lincolnton. Call (704) 735-1112 for information on catering services.