Written by Sherry Lucas | Photographed by Paul Wolf

A red-checkered welcome and the aroma of good ‘cue wave generations through the door of Hickory Pit. There, the cheeky “Best Butt in Town” T-shirts might coax a grin as big as the Hershey Bar Pie does.

But, the staple of this iconic Jackson restaurant has long been the tasty and tender barbecue — mostly pork but also beef and chicken — that crosses the counter and feeds the soul.

Ginger Watkins, owner since 1979, was just 25 when she brought a novice’s zeal and a knowing palate to the task. She and then-husband, Wesley Slay, both Mississippians, had been living near Auburn, Alabama, when a job offer brought them back to home turf.

“He had always wanted a barbecue restaurant. We found this little place, Hickory Pit, and bought it. I was a teacher before, and he was a banker, so he kept his day job and I did the Hickory Pit,” she says.

“People ask me if I was scared, and I said, ‘No. When you’re 25, what do you have to be scared about?’” she says, laughing. She always had that teaching fallback. Thanks to tasty ‘cue and loyal customers, she never had to use it.

She brought in a new wave, tweaking the recipes, cooking everything fresh daily and adding homemade goodness (rather than store-bought desserts) to the sweets case. Don

Cooper, a frequent customer, kept telling her about Hershey Bar Pie. She found the recipe and it became a famous favorite. “I don’t know whether I’m known for the barbecue or the Hershey Bar Pie!” Both keep reeling in the diners, now up to a fourth generation.

Her sister came down to help Watkins recreate a sweet sauce she’d loved in Alabama. “We practiced and tasted,and practiced and tasted in my kitchen till we came up with a sweet sauce.” It’s among the trio of sauces — there’s also mild and hot — on every table.

As well as barbecued pork, chicken and beef, the menu has smoked ham and turkey, burgers, po-boys and more. Lemon or pecan pie and carrot or coconut cake round out desserts. Catering is a big outlet; there’s also a drive-through. Kids who’ve grown and moved out of state, will often come back to this beloved family spot when they’re in town. “They always want to come to Keifer’s and Hickory Pit … the two places they grew up going to.”

As a long-time anchor in Canton Mart Square in LeFleur East, she’s only seen the shopping center — a hub for small local businesses — improve. Hickory Pit draws strongly from northeast Jackson. Nearby Interstate 55 delivers tourists, too.

“They know that the South is famous for barbecue,” and Yelp helps send them right over to pig out.

Hickory Pit is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and offers call-in and drive-through service, catering and Waitr.