I couldn't find Pat Martin when I stopped by the new Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint on James Island this morning. I'd been told to get there before 11:30 a.m., and as I walked through the colorful patio, bright green picnic tables ready for diners, I spied a handful of men in the back prepping a hog, but no Martin.
Turns out the man who started the popular whole hog, family friendly barbecue chain with 10 locations across four states was the guy in the Bobcat spreading gravel in the parking lot. Talk about a hands-on approach.
"I needed that," laughs Martin, "that and cutting grass, something monotonous."
It makes sense that he'd want to clear his head — tomorrow's a big day. Martin's officially opens their first location in the state at 1622 Highland Ave. starting at 11 a.m. Tues. May 7.
They'll be open daily for lunch and dinner, closing at 9 p.m. Sun.-Wed. and 10 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. Martin says he's headed back home to Nashville tomorrow night for his anniversary, but he isn't in the least bit worried about leaving his new Lowcountry baby so soon.
When we first chatted with Martin
back in March, he talked about the trust he's placed in his James Island operators, John Haire (former owner/operator of Jim N' Nicks) and Chase Barton. He reiterated the importance of those relationships today. "[Martin's] is so operator-driven; I have a better chance with an operator than with a location. Chase will run the store, he's been training with us for so long."
Mary Scott Hardaway
Wait in line and read the rules before you order
We walk around the restaurant, which seats approximately 85 guests inside, and "a smattering" outside. In addition to the partially covered patio and bar — "I spent a lot of creative time working on the patio" — there's a fenced-in green space in front of the restaurant with picnic table seating, cornhole, and Jenga.
Guests order at the counter, then find a seat. There's a soda fountain and beer taps next to the cash register, so you'll be sipping within seconds of ordering your pulled pork tray. We count at least four TVs, so sportsball fans should be happy.
Mary Scott Hardaway
Spend some quality time on the patio
The full bar — decorated with '80s wrestling photos and article clippings, no less — wraps around the parameter of the patio. There's even frose ready to churn in a frozen drink dispenser. Patrons with strollers in tow should be happy, too.
Husband and father of three, Martin says his restaurants are all about not only being family friendly, but family-driven. He says that when diners are deciding where to eat and they have kids to consider, they'll often have to make a sacrifice. Leave the kids and go wherever, or bring the kids and settle for a subpar experience. "A lot of times people don't feel comfortable [going out to eat], you pick one or the other. You can have a couple of beers at Martin's with your family."
Not only can you trust that your whole crew will be welcome at this casual joint, you can trust that you'll be feasting on fresh meat every day. Operating sans freezers (we checked), when the restaurant is outta pig, they're out for the day. This goes back to what Martin learned 25 years ago during his first week of college at teeny tiny Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn.
"It was 1990, my first week of school I met a man named Harold Thomas. Unbeknownst to me there were five or six counties ... about 100 miles east of Memphis, in West Tennessee that cooked whole hog," says Martin, including Henderson.
"He [Thomas] had no secrets." Martin would learn everything he could from Thomas, cooking for fraternities and sororities, spreading the smoky gospel amongst undergrads. "Mr. Harold cooked hogs, everyone cooked it. Now, they're all gone, died off."
Martin is still here, though, emulating those mom and pop spots that we can only read about in our barbecue history books. An econ major, he tried to cut it in the finance world, but in 2005, his wife urged him to pursue his real dream, the one that had been percolating in the Memphis-born pitmaster's brain for years. "The men in my family cooked barbecue and were very specific about not using gas grills," says Martin. "They made their own fire, shined their own shoes, changed their own oil."
And probably laid their own gravel, too.