Sonny Tillman stood at the restaurant door calling people “darlin’” and “honey” and hugging customers’ necks as the smell of smoked meat wafted into the August humidity.
Tillman, the founder of the southeastern barbecue chain that bears his first name, returned to the original Waldo Road restaurant Thursday to celebrate his 85th birthday.
For the occasion, the Sonny’s Barbecue restaurant transformed into a scene resembling a family birthday party.
Orange and blue streamers and balloons were taped to walls and windows. Family photos in frames adorned tables in the back half of the building. Tillman oscillated around greeting customers, many of whom were enjoying an $8.85 rib plate special in honor of the occasion.
“This is where it all began, right here, with people just like you,” he chuckled.
Later, Tillman gave a speech to family and friends, thanking members of his original staff and longtime employees. He called 45-year cook “Ms. Red” from the line to stand in the center of the room. Tillman hugged her as she wiped her hands on her apron, and she grinned shyly at the room full of smiling faces.
“That’s the greatest help a man could want,” he said.
In fact, that’s what Tillman attributes the chain’s success to: talented, personable employees. “Good food,” he said, “and good people to represent.”
Tillman, who grew up in Orange Heights, Fla., founded Sonny’s Barbecue in 1968. Today, it’s a chain with 123 franchises throughout nine states – including three Gainesville locations.
Ken Kirkpatrick was growing up when the chain was growing up, too. Kirkpatrick’s father was the owner of the first franchise, established in 1977 along Ocala’s Highway 200. Eventually, his father bought and managed more franchises, and Kirkpatrick recalls hearing him make nightly phone calls to see how the stores were doing. He also recalls bussing tables and taking orders as a teenager.
Now, Kirkpatrick owns the three Jacksonville, Fla., franchises. He credits the chain’s success to “the sheer strength of Sonny’s character,” “the quality of the food,” and also the chain’s Gainesville origins. He said generations of college students got hooked on the food and created a demand for it.
“People come from Gainesville who say ‘I love Sonny’s,’” Kirkpatrick said.
Now, Tillman says he spends his free time enjoying his cattle farm in High Springs and fishing. As a young man, he said he chose the barbecue business because he enjoyed helping out in the kitchen of a relative’s restaurant.
“I couldn’t cook a biscuit. I can barely toast a piece of bread,” he said. “All I really knew was barbecue.”
Right before he opened the Waldo Road location, he said people told him the store wouldn’t succeed. They said Gainesville residents wouldn’t eat barbecue.
“I said, ‘Well, I just blew my life savings — which wasn’t much. We’re going to try to make it work.’”
And then 85-year-old Sonny Tillman pauses to chuckle again and looks up at the restaurant in front of him.
“And we’ve made it work,” he said.