The Bessinger family name is synonymous with the tangy, yellow barbecue sauce that put South Carolina on the map as a mustard-based BBQ region. It was 80 years ago that the now famous sauce was first used by Joseph Bessinger in a Holly Hill, SC, restaurant. Three generations later David Bessinger, owner of Melvin’s Barbecue in Mt Pleasant and on James Island, still uses the same Golden Secret sauce his grandfather created 80 years ago.
Many Barbecue lovers around the country acknowledge differences in regional flavors of sauces and meats. However, many devotees may not know the story of how Joseph Bessinger popularized mustard-based barbecue.
It was on the family farm in Orangeburg, SC, that Joe’s ten-year-old son, Melvin, found his dad in a shed mixing mustard with vinegar and spices. That golden amalgam would eventually become the unrivaled mustard-based BBQ sauce for generations of South Carolinians.
Word began to spread in Orangeburg of Big Joe’s barbecue pork, cooked inside a pit dug deep in the ground, and slathered with his secret mustard-based sauce. With encouragement from his wife, Joe traded the family’s cow and mule plus $50 for a café in nearby Holly Hill on Old State Road. In 1939 the Holly Hill Cafe opened, serving mustard-based barbecue. The Holly Hill Cafe was open only a short time as the long-lasting effects of the Depression forced Joe to close its doors.
Big Joe’s third son, Melvin, brought that dream back to life when he returned from World War II a decorated war hero. Using his Army paychecks, Melvin bought a piece of land in Holly Hill for his dad to open a second restaurant, Eat at Joe’s.
Joe's six sons worked with him around the clock serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while teaching each of them the barbecue business. Together they served all-wood smoked pork slathered with the acclaimed mustard-based BBQ sauce that had become the tradition at Eat at Joe’s. The smoky aroma and the lore of the Golden Secret® BBQ Sauce attracted friends and kin from miles away.
Eat at Joe’s became a landmark in the midlands of South Carolina. The journey was not complete for those traveling US 301 through Holly Hill on the way to Florida without stopping for a taste of BBQ and Big Joe’s secret mustard sauce. As time went on and the brothers grew older, one-by-one, they left Eat at Joe’s to start their own barbecue businesses.
By 1954, with the impending construction of I-26, Melvin’s vision for a barbecue restaurant expanded beyond the legendary Holly Hill road stop. Realizing that traffic would be diverted away from Holly Hill, he imagined a broader map for the family BBQ business.
In 1955, Melvin closed the doors of Eat at Joe’s in Holly Hill and made a bold move to Charleston, a city he had grown to love while attending The Citadel Military College. Melvin brought with him his younger brother, Thomas. Initially, the brothers worked for their older brother J.D., who owned a BBQ restaurant located on Rutledge Avenue known as Piggy Park Drive-In. Eventually, Melvin and Thomas desired to own their own BBQ eatery, so the brothers struck out on their own and opened Piggy Park Drive-In on Savannah Highway. Melvin’s younger brother, Maurice, who also worked for J.D., moved to Cayce to open his own place, naming it Piggy Park Drive-In. Two additional Bessinger brothers, Woodrow and Robert, followed suit and went into the family BBQ business in Charleston.
After a decade in business, Melvin and Thomas decided to rename their establishment “Bessinger’s - The Barbecue Family,” hoping to relieve confusion over ownership of multiple Piggy Park Drive-Ins within the same family.
Together Melvin and Thomas co-owned Bessinger’s on Savannah Highway for almost two decades. Although the brothers had worked well together for many years, ultimately they decided it was time to pursue different paths. Thomas maintained ownership of Bessinger’s Barbecue on Savannah Highway, while Melvin crossed the Cooper River and opened Melvin’s Barbecue in Lafayette Village, Mount Pleasant, SC. Five years later a piece of property on Houston Northcutt with a sprawling oak tree caught Melvin’s eye and in 1982 he relocated Melvin’s Barbecue to that location. Melvin’s Barbecue expanded to a second location on James Island in 1984.
The scale of Melvin’s Barbecue continued to evolve and change when Melvin’s son, Melvin David Bessinger, became more involved in the business. Melvin and David opened additional Melvin’s Barbecue restaurants that grew to four locations from Charleston, to Summerville, and Hilton Head, SC. Father and son soon realized that they could not operate as a chain if they wanted to stay true to Melvin’s Barbecue. “When the dust settled, Dad did not want more, he wanted to do it right. That’s the Melvin’s way,” says David.
Doing it right included keeping up with the ever-evolving barbecue business. David says, “We have added items to Melvin’s menu like Texas-style brisket, burnt ends, and even southern fried chicken. We’ve mixed in some of my own recipes for dry rubs, brisket rubs, and sauces. But you know we will never replace the original Golden Secret® BBQ Sauce.”
In recent years Melvin’s Barbecue took new turns as David ventured into the retail world, selling Melvin’s Golden Secret® BBQ Sauce in grocery stores and specialty shops throughout the United States. “I can’t make the sauce in the old farm shed any longer; however, I do stick to the fundamental BBQ sauce traditions that were passed down to me from my granddaddy and father,” says David.
The roads leading fans to Melvin’s Barbecue have sprawled and buckled, much like the pavement over the roots of that old live oak tree still growing at the Mt. Pleasant location. Melvin Bessinger’s relentless work ethic and ingenuity took the legendary mustard-based barbecue sauce, Golden Secret®, from coordinates on the map near the midlands of South Carolina to towns across the United States. “My father turned the business over to me in 2009, when he was 86 years old. He passed away in 2012. At Melvin’s Barbecue, we continue to honor Dad’s core family values by closing on Sundays and serving all-wood smoked BBQ slathered with the mustard-based barbeque sauce South Carolinians have enjoyed for over 80 years. I think Dad would be pleased,” adds David.