Being a farmer is no easy living, as Larry Sconyers can attest. His father Claude scraped our a modest existence as a farmhand about 30 miles outside of Augusta, Ga., in the mid-1950s. Claude's real passion was cooking barbecue.
"And thank goodness it was, because it turned out to be a wonderful thing for us,” said Larry Sconyers.
Ol' Claude opened Sconyers Bar-B-Que about 8 miles south of Augusta National Golf Club in 1956. With one locale change and an expansion, the family barbecue spot has been going strong ever since and now a third generation is pitching in.
Larry, 77, was also the last chairman of the old Richmond County Commission and the first mayor of the new consolidated government in Augusta in 1996. He served three years and said, “That was enough.”
But Sconyers Bar-B-Que, thanks to its local renown, has had its political moments, serving barbecue to Presidents Jimmy Carter at the White House and Bill Clinton on Air Force One.
Sconyers almost had the Presidential trifecta. Although not high on the rounds-per-term list, Ronald Reagan did tee it up now and again. In October 1983 he was taking his cuts at Augusta National. The plan was to have some Sconyers barbecue after the round.
Things went awry when an unemployed millwright named Charles Harris, whose life was unraveling in a variety of ways, rammed his truck through the gates of Augusta National, took hostages in the pro shop, and demanded to speak to Reagan.
“He wanted to talk to the President and I guess he wanted to talk to him mighty badly,” Sconyers said.
The President tried to communicate with Harris via a car phone, but the reception was poor and Harris cut off the call in frustration. The President was whisked away, Harris eventually surrendered and no one was hurt. Reagan didn’t get to finish his last three holes, but he showed up the next day for another round. No barbecue, though.
Reagan’s loss, since at Sconyers they still do 'cue the old-fashioned way.
“We cook our meat 24 hours over an open pit — live coals from oak and hickory, no gas, no electricity, we give you the real deal," Sconyers said. "We’re very proud of that because what we’re doing is a dying art; people don’t want to do that anymore because it’s time consuming. But the end result justifies what we do.
“Low and slow. That's the whole key to it. My father's theory was that the true taste of barbecue is the meat dripping down onto the coals. Letting the steam come back into the meat. We put sauce on the table, but you can make barbecue sauce taste like anything. His theory was that the true flavor should be in the meat, so you don't even need sauce.”
Pulled pork is the No. 1 seller.
“We’ve always cooked a lot of beef, too, brisket, but we had it on the menu as beef,” said Sconyers. "One of my customers was kidding me and said, ‘Why don’t you put it on the menu as brisket, ‘cause that’s what it is.’ So we did, and just by changing the word from ‘beef’ to ‘brisket’ increased our beef sales about 20 percent.”
Recovering from a recent knee replacement, Sconyers isn't concerned about his golf game: he doesn’t play. But he has been to the Masters a number of times and considers Augusta National, “one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
The tournament doesn’t do a lot for his business, though. “Many of our regulars rent out their homes and leave town then,” he said.
The restaurant serves some 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of meat each week, a hearty amount considering it’s opened only Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. But that should work out well for visitors looking for seats during the Masters. The tournament doesn’t really start until the back nine on Sunday anyway.
Tom Bedell is, as best that he can discern, the sole member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the North American Guild of Beer Writers. He writes, and drinks, in Williamsville, Vermont.