Originally created 09/21/03

Roy's Barbecue draws crowds despite its simple setup



PLUM BRANCH, S.C. - The smoke begins wafting over the railroad tracks just after dawn most Saturdays, beckoning down a circuitous gravel path forking off a stretch of back road in this small hamlet just south of McCormick.

If it weren't for a few modest tin signs pointing the way to Roy's Barbecue, a rustic stack of cinderblocks and screens surrounded by hay bales and old farming machinery, perhaps no one would know this place even exists.

Or maybe they would.

Even though Roy's - run by 67-year-old Roy Tompkins and his longtime friend and partner James King, 58 - doesn't advertise and is open only on Saturdays and most holidays, folks flock from all over to get their mouths on some of its smoked delicacies.

"Greenville, Abbeville, Greenwood, Aiken, Lincolnton, Columbia - we get them from all over," said Mr. Tompkins, an easy-going retiree who has been serving up his cooking here since 1986. "Last week we had some folks from Charleston. Every once in a while we got out-of-towners: Chicago, New York, Maryland ... we've sent hash all the way to Miami, Fla."

The hash - a tangy, delectable stew of chicken, pork, minced onions and potatoes - must be one reason for the far-flung clientele, judging from how much of it is cooking on any given Saturday. Two massive 25-quart cast-iron pots simmer over a wood fire on the open brick pit inside Roy's cramped kitchen, so big they're stirred with a wooden spoon that resembles an oar.

Black, barrel-shaped smokers - one for ribs and chicken, one for the pork hams that cook for 14 hours - occupy a side room of the two-room, Spartan structure.

Mr. Tompkins, a retired medical supply worker, has cooked in various places for 29 years, most of that time at a second job at the Sun Down restaurant on U.S. Highway 378. Mr. King, retired from the South Carolina Department of Transportation, fell into the business because he just "loved to cook." Until they retired, Saturdays and holidays were the only days they were free to cook. The tradition stuck.

Both men say they don't do it for money, but for the enjoyment. It's also a family affair. Mr. Tompkins' two grown daughters, their husbands and four grandchildren pitch in on busy days such as the Fourth of July holiday, when Roy's runs full-bore from morning to sundown for three days.

"All of them can cook," Mr. Tompkins said with a touch of pride in his voice.

Mr. Tompkins serves only take-out - the only seating is a wooden picnic table a few feet from the store window - and doesn't bother with side orders such as corn or fries. Mostly it's meat and hash, served up with a tomato-based sauce, the contents of which Mr. Tompkins divulges little.

"We just fix it to go, then we don't have to be bothered with people," Mr. Tompkins said with a wry smile.

Roy's Barbecue isn't the last of its kind, but it is a dying breed, Mr. King and Mr. Tompkins acknowledged.

"Young people have no patience, and it takes patience to do this," Mr. King said.

"All the older people (doing barbecue) are dead and gone," Mr. Tompkins added.

Will Roy's carry on after Mr. Tompkins is gone?

My baby said he's going to tend to it," Mr. Tompkins said of his grandson.

Mr. King joked: "I used to love to do it just for a hobby, but now it's gotten to be a job."

Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110.