Not much has changed in four decades on a shaded corner along N.C. 43 on the western edge of Greenville.
The same old pecan and oak trees offer relief for picnic tables outside what was once an old country store; the parking lot remains unpaved. Vehicles overflow from the lot to the surrounding roadsides as hungry visitors rush to get B’s Barbecue for lunch – before the popular, chopped whole-hog product and chicken off charcoal grills runs out.
Tammy Godley, one of three sisters who have helped operate B’s since it opened in 1978, said change would be a bad thing when the same old routine has been so good.
“It’s just a place to sit on a tailgate and eat some barbecue, and you’re good,” Godley said. “It’s got that still-in-the-country kind of vibe.”
Its rural qualities aside, the highway in front of B’s is also Greenville’s West Fifth Street, an artery that flows past Vidant Medical Center into downtown and through the heart of the East Carolina University campus.
B’s, however, doesn’t have a website, credit card machines or even a telephone.
“We’ve never had a phone,” Godley said. “Keep it plain and simple. My dad would say, ‘no phone, you’ve got to come see me.’ If we had a phone, we’d have to have someone else to answer it.”
Godley and sisters Donna McLawhorn and Judy Drach are the daughters of Peggy McLawhorn, who founded B’s with her late husband Bill and their business partner Bob Griswell. The McLawhorns were a farming family before Bill bought the country store from neighbors and turned his hobby of cooking into a family business.
Bill passed away 10 years ago. Peggy now owns the eatery, though her daughters can be found plating orders behind the counter every day B’s is open, Tuesday through Saturday.
“We’ve been doing it ever since he opened it,” Godley said of the sisters’ involvement. “But we do what she says anyway, let’s put it that way. She’s still the boss.”
At some point in the late ‘80s, the road on the side of the restaurant took on its name, but spelled “B’s Barbeque Road” with a “q.” To little surprise, the sign has gone missing several times. B’s Barbeque Road is the first right turn when coming into Greenville from the west on U.S. 264.
“That worked out real good,” Godley said. “Can’t complain.”
‘Keep it clean'
As ideal as the setting is from a marketing standpoint, it is the pig – 35 to 38 cooked weekly – that keeps customers coming back to B’s. It has been featured in countless publications and is a resident podium placer in Carolina barbeque polls.
A smokehouse out back features four giant charcoal grills: two each for cooking the pork and the chicken.
Several cooks have come and gone over the years, but all have been like family. Arthur House, the grandson of B’s first cook, has cooked the chickens for about a decade. His uncle, Ronald House, has been on pig duty several years.
“All of us grew up with those girls,” said House, who worked on the clean-up crew at B’s when he was growing up.
Godley said B’s history has helped it succeed in a region dominated by old and new establishments wearing the Eastern N.C. barbecue label.
Two heavyweights of the industry, Skylight Inn in Ayden and Parker’s Barbecue in both Greenville and Wilson, are a short drive away. Both those restaurants originated in the mid-1940s, well ahead of B’s. Godley said her father was friends with the owners of both rival companies.
But Godley thinks B’s has thrived mainly because of its presentation. The pork is cleaned one hog at a time before being hand chopped and sauced inside.
“It’s just that we try to keep it a little cleaner, a little dressier, than some so you don’t get a lot of stuff that you ain’t supposed to get,” Godley said. “We don’t just take everything. And our sauce makes it a little different.”
The tangy, spicy and agreeable mixture looks like other vinegar-based, red pepper-flaked dressings of the region, but with a unique smack to it. Godley won’t talk about it beyond saying it’s a family secret. House won’t slip up, either.
“I don’t know what it is,” House said with a deceitful grin, though perhaps he really doesn’t know. Bill McLawhorn and House’s grandfather, the first cook at B’s who was also named Arthur House, were the brains behind the sauce. The sisters continue to make, and protect, the recipe.
Keeping the product consistent is less about secrets across generations and more about experience, House said.
“You’ve really got to know what you’re doing, now. You can’t just throw something on the grill,” he said. “You’re going to have hot-spots in the grill and got to know where they are at. Some ends are going to cook quicker than the other end.”
Get there early
The food goes quick at B’s, where regulars know to get there well ahead of the 2 p.m. closing time. A cozy dining area offers limited seating, giving the picnic tables plenty of use.
The restaurant closes early, but also opens early – serving barbecue and chicken at 9 a.m.
“My dad started that; we’ve been open at 9 ever since we’ve been open,” Godley said. “I tried to tell him, ‘Daddy, let’s wait until 10 – everyone else opens at 10.’ He said no, you need to get those first people in the morning.”
To make that happen, the cooks start the pigs about 10 p.m. the night before and cook until about 5:30 to 6 a.m. The pigs then cool for a couple hours before the chopping begins. The chickens, which have grown in popularity in recent years, hit the grill about 6:30 a.m.
The hours don’t seem to deter business one bit. History has shown people will come for the food when B’s says it is ready.
“It seems like they’re coming earlier, because they know after 1, 1:30 p.m. it gets kind of iffy,” Godley said of the daily supply. “I don’t like to run out too early, but I don’t like to have it left over, either.”
Godley is most proud of how the B’s name has become widely popular and synonymous with good barbecue.
“We never intended for it to be like it is, but we are grateful for it,” Godley said. “We ain’t complaining.”
Aaron Moody: 919-829-4528, @Aaron–Moody1