It all happened over dinner and a couple of beers during the summer of 2018.
Hopeulikit BBQ & Market owners Kelly Lee and Kelly Anderson became friends as their daughters, Lexie and Jackie, became best friends while attending Trinity Christian School in Statesboro.
Lee, who had lived in Statesboro as a teen and then again as a college student, settled in the Boro with his wife Missy in 2013. Missy had taken the job of assistant principal at Trinity, and Lee owned a window cleaning business in Tifton, Georgia. Once in the Boro, he started an exterior cleaning business, which he operated until opening the restaurant.
Anderson is a native of Bulloch County, having grown up in the Hopeulikit area. After graduating from Portal High, he entered the Marine Corps, and then attended Swainsboro Tech, and went to work at Georgia Pacific, where he worked for 25 years. He had decided that after his daughter graduated, he wanted to find something other than mill work to do.
Anderson’s father, Jackie, owned a peach orchard and had operated Anderson’s Peach Station with his brother, Johnny, since the early 90s. It was a landmark for a long time in Bulloch County, located on Highway 80 in Hopeulikit. Anderson says that once the peach stand closed, there were other businesses that used the building, but they never quite gained ground. He says he had always thought the property, still owned by his dad, had potential.
“I just kind of had it in the back of my mind that if I ever found the right thing to do here, I’d do it. I had thought about other stuff that could go on here, but I have also seen a lot of stuff here, and it had to be the right thing for me to quit a good job,” he said. “And when me and Kelly started talking about doing this, I had in my own mind, and I thought, the timing is right.”
Lee says he has always loved barbecue, and his brother, Matt, is a champion on the barbecue competition circuit. He invited his big brother to join him for a competition in 2011.
“I really enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun. You meet a lot of people, and it was just fun competing. We starting doing a number of those together, and every one we did, we learned a little bit more. We’d learn a few tricks, and we’d learn a few things we didn’t know. Competition is a lot more than just taste. A lot of other factors go into it,” he said.
The brothers won their first event together in Tallahassee, Florida in 2013, which was a statewide championship sanctioned by the Florida BBQ Association. It had been a last second decision to compete, and Lee says it propelled them to want to do it more and more.
Matt started his own barbecue restaurant in Blackshear, Georgia, but got burned out on running a restaurant. He’s now the pit master at Hopeulikit BBQ, having started last October.
Anderson and Lee quickly determined that they had a fantastic idea, and they set out to transform the former peach stand into the barbecue joint of their dreams.
But finding a commercial contractor proved difficult, so the opening didn’t happen as quickly as the men wanted. They, along with family and friends, did some of the work themselves, but needed a professional contractor to finish the job. Getting a commercial contractor to take on a small job proved to be a daunting task.
Eventually, they found Earl Woodcock Builders.
“He did most of the work for us. He came in and did a real good job,” Anderson said.
On the front side of the building, the work done was mostly cosmetic. They added a drink station and redid the front counter, which had previously been covered in outdoor carpet, so that it was the perfect place to serve food. They added a porch onto the building, and constructed a smokehouse, as well as updated all of the electrical in the building.
The biggest portion of the reconstruction was adding the kitchen.
“We had to make it into a functioning restaurant, because it had never been that before,” Lee said.
“The basic building was there, but most of the work was done in the kitchen, because it had been a peach stand,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t a cosmetic job back there.”
The renovations took about eight or nine months, but it all went much more quickly and smoothly after Woodcock Builders came on the scene.
“We really appreciated Earl Woodcock,” Anderson said. “Once we found him, he came in pretty quick. Once we contacted Earl and showed him what we wanted done, within two or three months, he was done with it. And we were basically in business. If we had found Earl from the start, we would have been open in three months.”
The first day the restaurant was open for business was May 17, 2019.
“We just kind of grew and grew since then,” Lee said. “Each week, each month has gotten better and better. Even when all this COVID situation happened. We shut down our dining room even before all the regulations were in place, and started serving out of the front two windows.”
Lee added that their customers have expressed appreciation that they are still open. They have even extended their hours, and hired more people.
“The virus, it changed how we do things, and it changed some of the plans we had. We lost some catering jobs we had planned. But as far as running the restaurant, it really didn’t change anything,” Lee said.
Both men said they had been a little apprehensive about being so far outside of town, even though they knew there wasn’t another option for good barbecue on that side of the county.
“It’s a little bit outside of town, but there’s a lot more people that live out here than people realize,” Anderson said.
“When we got started, we really didn’t know what to expect. One of the biggest questions in our minds was will people drive out here for the barbecue,” Lee said.
The partners focused on getting the surrounding neighborhoods to eat with them, and their support has been a major factor in the restaurant’s growth and success.
“We appreciate every neighborhood in this community,” Anderson said. “They have truly supported us.”
Because of their location, both men knew that their barbecue had to be top notch. Both men give Matt all the credit for the consistent quality and great taste of their barbecue. Having him as pit master has been key.
The menu at HUBBQ is very simple: it’s southern, wood smoked barbecue.
“I think that’s one of the things that sets us apart,” Lee said. “We use nothing but wood. That gives the meat a lot of flavor. We season the meat with our own rub that we’ve come up with over time. The sauces that we use are all custom made, and I think those things right there set us apart.”
They also employ a Lang smoker, which is the No. 1 smoker in the world, made in Nahunta, Georgia. The smoker uses a reverse flow, which means the smoke comes in from the firebox on one side, goes under the meat, and then back over the meat and out the stack.
“That design and just the way that smoker is built puts us at an advantage over most others. That’s a harder way to do it because you’re having to man that pit and make sure the temp is at the temp you need,” Lee said.
Matt comes in around 2:30 a.m. on the days the restaurant is open, and the meat comes off about 10 a.m. They serve pulled pork, chicken, sausage and brisket. There’s smoked turkey on Thursdays, and St. Louis-style ribs. They also have traditional sides, as well as Brunswick stew, made fresh in-house by Anderson’s wife, Violet. The desserts are also made fresh on site.
The top seller is the pulled pork, but the thing that draws the crowds is the brisket, Lee said.
“I think our brisket sets us apart from a lot of other places,” he said, adding that not many places in South Georgia sell it.
The barbecue at HUBBQ is cooked using the hot and fast method, a method at which Matt excels.
“People refuse to believe that he did it. He’s just an expert. He can do the brisket. It’s tender and he knows how to season it. It’s real good,” Anderson said.
Lee says they also wanted a different way to serve their product, so they employ a Central Texas style market barbecue setup. When you come in, there is no plate you can order; instead, you order the meat by the pound, and you can add all the sides you want.
“The market style setup is not something you find in many places around here,” Lee said. When the dining room is open, you walk up to the counter, order and pay, take your food and sit down. There is no wait staff. Right now, since the dining room is closed, you can order at the window, call in your order, order online or use the new app on your cell phone.
The food is always prepared right in from of the customer.
“So you see what you’re getting,” Lee said. “It’s prepared in front of you, and then you can choose to take it home with you, or sit down if you want to eat it here.”
The dining room can seat about 30 people, and Lee and Anderson have plans to add an outdoor, screened-in pavilion for even more seating. They say they will continue to serve using the front windows for the foreseeable future, since it’s working so well for them. But they want the outdoor seating to happen sooner, rather than later.
Another key to HUBBQ’s success is the partnerships. The friendship and partnership between “The Kellys” means there is no pressure on either.
“We love coming out here. We love what we’re doing,” Anderson said. “We’re not stressed out. I know he can run it, he knows I can run it. It’s just worked out very well.”
They also speak of the support their wives and families have given them. Violet works at the restaurant when she can, and Missy has helped with website design and has been a great source of ideas for them.
“Both of our wives have just been so supportive of everything we’re doing. We couldn’t make this thing go without them,” Lee said.
Anderson’s dad has been very supportive as well, and the restaurant is truly a family operation, with both men’s daughters working there, as well as a niece and some of the girls’ friends. The men also hired Susan Hooks, who has worked in the local restaurant business for 30 years.
“That was one of our big assets from the very beginning,” Lee said. “Neither one of us had very much restaurant experience at all. Miss Susan has been invaluable to us. She’s been in a lot of different environments, and she knows the restaurant business. Having someone with that experience has just been very helpful.”
Winning Best Barbecue in Discovering Bulloch’s Readers Choice issue came as a surprise, but it was certainly a pleasant surprise, and both men were excited about the award.
“I felt like, from the start, that we had to have the best barbecue that you could cook,” Anderson said.
“I feel like that’s what we have,” Lee added.
For more information on HUBBQ or to order, go online at www.hopeulikitbbq.com, or call 912-865-5364. The app is available for download for both Apple and Android products.