HOLLY HILL - A culinary landmark that has gained a reputation for cooking up some of the finest barbecue in the nation has been sold.
Sweatman's Bar-B-Que, opened in 1977 by the late Margie and Harold O. "Bub" Sweatman, was sold this week to Mark and Lynn Behr of Holly Hill.
Located on Highway 453/Eutaw Road between Holly Hill and Eutawville, Sweatman's has fed thousands of folks over its more than three decades in business. Famous diners have included Anthony Bourdain, the irreverent host of the Travel Channel's "No Reservations," astronaut Frank Culbertson and actor Ian McKellan who starred in the movie, "The Lord of the Rings."
The restaurant has received rave reviews in countless publications, including "Southern Living" magazine.
Mere utterance of the word "Sweatman's" conjures up mouth-watering visions of a buffet laden with succulent barbecue pork seasoned with the family's secret-recipe sauce, ribs, hash and rice, coleslaw, pork skins, all the other traditional fixings and the popular banana pudding.
Patrons of the restaurant need not fear the sale of the restaurant will change the quality of the food they're accustomed to feasting on or the comfortable family atmosphere at Sweatman's. The Behrs purchased the family's recipes as well as the restaurant.
"I'm pleased that the new owners will continue to carry on the Sweatman family traditions that our customers have grown to know and love over the years," Patricia Sweatman Wolpert, daughter of the founders of the restaurant, said of the Behrs.
"Our goal is to make Bub and Margie (Sweatman) proud by continuing the same family traditions," Mark Behr said, noting he and his wife are long-time friends of the Sweatman family.
Wolpert said her parents first operated a small barbecue restaurant in Holly Hill from 1959 to 1960. After closing that eatery, they continued to serve dinners at what the family called "the old dairy," a farm building that stood just yards from the Sweatman home. But her parents continued to dream of a barbecue restaurant, Wolpert said.
In 1977, they purchased the old farmhouse that continues to house Sweatman's Bar-B-Que today. When they first opened the restaurant, they were cooking seven to eight hogs each weekend, Wolpert said.
"Daddy was raising his own hogs. But as the business continued to grow, he decided to purchase hogs from the market," she said.
The demand for whole hog, pit-cooked barbecue tripled, and the restaurant was soon cooking 20 to 25 hogs each weekend, Wolpert said.
Bub and Margie Sweatman worked side by side until Bub suffered a major stroke that paralyzed his right side in 1999. Margie's health declined, and a stroke in August 2002 left her bedridden until her death in February 2003. Bub died in January 2005.
After their deaths, the couple's daughters, Wolpert and Susan Sweatman French, along with other family members, continued to operate the restaurant.
Referring to the sale of the business to the Behrs, Wolpert said, "This has been a tough but much prayed-over decision that needed to be made, and now I feel my prayers have been answered."
The Behrs said their purchase of Sweatman's Bar-B-Que was an answer to their prayers, too, adding that they also sought direction from the Lord about the career change.
"We wanted to do something we feel like we enjoy doing, and this is a new adventure for us," Lynn Behr said.
"(Bub and Margie Sweatman) were good country people who were down to earth and hardworking," she said.
Mrs. Behr said dining at Sweatman's Bar-B-Que is unique because it's "not just a meal, it's an experience."
Her husband said patrons love the cozy atmosphere of the old farmhouse and the aroma of pork barbecue being cooked on site.
"Whole hogs cooked over an open pit over hardwood coals the way it was done over 30 years ago - that's one of the things that makes Sweatman's unique," he said.
While many aspects of Sweatman's will remain the same - some members of the Sweatman family and previous staff will continue to work there - customers will note some differences, Behr said.
The buffet will no longer be "all you care to eat." Customers will have a choice of three plate sizes: child's, regular and large. Those who order a child's or regular buffet plate will have their plates prepared by the restaurant server. Those who order the large buffet may prepare their own plates.
"In an effort to keep costs down, we're going to try to reduce the price of a plate of barbecue," Behr said.
For decades, Sweatman's Bar-B-Que did not have a listed telephone number, but that has also changed. Customers who place takeout orders are now able to call in advance, place an order and pick it up. The new number is 803-496-1227. Patrons can also pay with credit cards and debit cards for the first time. Previously, the restaurant only accepted cash. Hours of operation will remain the same: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays.
Stay tuned for an official website for Sweatman's Bar-B-Que, which is currently under construction, Behr said.
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