Bessinger’s, a bedrock of South Carolina barbecue, on Friday announced plans to immediately discontinue the element of its service most unique to the state’s barbecue culture: The buffet.
According to a restaurant spokeswoman, the West Ashley restaurant will use the dining room, which up until now housed the buffet, for banquets and Rotary Club meetings.
"They're reviewing concepts for a future direction for the restaurant and see this as a time to re-group and better explore the options," Elizabeth Boineau says.
According to owner Michael Bessinger, he hasn’t ruled out adding a bar to the room, while allowing the adjoining sandwich shop to remain alcohol-free. Bessinger suspects bourbon and craft beer would appeal to a younger demographic.
”We’re turning 80 years old (in 2020) and we want to turn 100 years old,” he said when reached by phone on Saturday. “We’re trying to keep the concept fruitful and lively.”
The Post and Courier in 2015 described Bessinger’s Friday, Saturday and Sunday buffet as a collection of "hotel pans, running more than a dozen across and sometimes as many as three deep (which) contain a crash course in old-timey Southern cookery: smothered chicken, fried chicken, collard greens, mac-and-cheese, fried catfish, squash casserole, hash and rice vie for plate space in advance of the ribs and pulled pork."
"Our recipes are generations old," Bessinger said at the time. "It's not something we Google."
The Bessinger family is widely credited with introducing Midlands-style barbecue to Charleston more than 75 years ago. Bessinger’s father got the idea to install a buffet from his brother, Maurice: It was introduced in 1972.
"It was working out pretty good," Thomas Bessinger Jr. told The Post and Courier, referring to his brother’s early success with the format. "Good country cooking brings them back."
In fact, Bessinger’s had a number of customers who dined at the buffet multiple times every week. Yet Bessinger Jr. in 2015 was sympathetic to his son’s concerns about the high costs of buffet service, which spiral upward whenever a customer overloads a plate. The elder Bessinger suspended the buffet for six years, starting in 1984, for the same financial reasons.
"I just don’t know," he said in 2015. "But I think buffet is about on the way out."
Bessinger’s will offer its buffet on Saturday and Sunday for the final time. But Bessinger says many of customers’ favorite dishes will be available in the sandwich shop, which will continue to operate as usual.
For example, “The mac-and-cheese is there,“ he says. “We will offer you what you want.”