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 â€œBest Butt in Townâ€ T-shirtsÂ 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 â€” mostly pork but also beef and chicken â€” 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.
â€œHe 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,â€ she says.
â€œPeople ask me if I was scared, and I said, ‘No. When you’re 25, what do you have to be scared about?’â€ 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. â€œI don’t know whether I’m known for the barbecue or the Hershey Bar Pie!â€ 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. â€œWe practiced and tasted,and practiced and tasted in my kitchen till we came up with a sweet sauce.â€ It’s among the trio of sauces â€” there’s also mild and hot â€” 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. â€œThey always want to come to Keifer’s and Hickory Pit â€¦ the two places they grew up going to.â€
As a long-time anchor in Canton Mart SquareÂ in LeFleur East, she’s only seen the shopping center â€” a hub for small local businessesÂ â€” improve. Hickory Pit draws strongly from northeast Jackson. Nearby Interstate 55 delivers tourists, too.
â€œThey know that the South is famous for barbecue,â€ 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.