Harry Harrell and Gary Torrence often marvel at the way they make their living.
The FAMU grads — Harrell majored in computer science and Torrence in electrical engineering — are the owners of Tom Jenkins' Bar-B-Q in Fort Lauderdale.
"We both have technical degrees and we're cooking with wood," says Harrell. "Go figure."
So proficient are their cooking skills, however, that Tom Jenkins' Bar-B-Q was voted the best barbecue eatery in South Florida by online Sun Sentinel readers.
"It's really an awesome feeling," says Harrell. "It really is a labor of love for Gary and I. We've been selected best-of several times, but it never gets old to us. We always want to stay as consistent as possible and put out an excellent product. It feels great when someone acknowledges it."
Harrell and Torrence, Omega Psi Phi fraternity brothers, ended up working at IBM after college. Harrell was there for 13 years as computer programmer, systems engineer, marketing rep and project manager. Torrence designed computer chips for eight years before becoming a middle school math teacher. They always knew they wanted to open a business. It just took a while before they realized their future was in barbecue.
"We developed our barbecue sauce 10 years before we ever did anything with it. It was the kind of thing friends would say, 'Bring some of your special sauce!" Harrell says. "Over time, working in corporate America, we both knew we wanted to have our own business. We wanted to be able to take care of our families and educate our kids and said the best thing we do is cook. We love to do it."
They quickly realized that banks weren't lending money to would-be restaurateurs because of the high rate of failure. So in 1989, while still maintaining their 9-to-5 careers, they opened an 8-by-12-foot barbecue trailer on Federal Highway in the parking lot of Inn-N-Out oil change.
In 1995, they bought the current location. It took one year to transform what was The Straw Hat, a country and western bar, into the 40-seat Tom Jenkins', named after one of Torrence's favorite uncles.
"The building literally had a front door and a back door. No windows or anything. We had to cut windows. We had to make bigger doors. We had to get in there with jackhammers. We had very little money. We did everything we could by ourselves. Everything else, we put on credit cards," Harrell says.
In 1996, they hit the ground running.
"You can't discount the seven years in the trailer," says Harrell. "We had a lot of years sitting in that trailer, Gary and I, wondering what the heck we were doing."
But their reputation was cemented with heaping portions of St. Louis-style ribs, chopped pork and chicken — still their top three sellers — slow-cooked in the restaurant's 6-by-10-foot pit. Macaroni and cheese and collard greens remain their most popular side dishes, but they also serve potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, corn on the cob, french fries and onion rings.
"We're kind of the place where people come when they want to be bad and reward themselves," Harrell says.
They maintain the family atmosphere by not serving alcohol and continue to attract a broad cross section of the community by keeping prices in check. They haven't had a price increase since 2008.
"We're one of the closest things you can get to a home-cooked meal in a restaurant," Harrell says. "We get a lot of people who say this is just like a Sunday meal at grandmother's house."
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