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Competition is spicy on Fourth Street barbecue corridor

ST. PETERSBURG — Tomato or vinegar based? Kansas City or Texas style? Pulled or chopped? East side of Fourth Street or west? For here or to go? Which Fred are you talking about?

These are questions barbecue diners have to ask these days when deciding where they want to eat. Another question they may ponder is how four barbecue joints within 3 miles of each other can stay in business.

Luckie B's Bar-B-Que opened in 2010 at 4351 Fourth St. N, in the location that housed Fred Fleming's from 1999 to 2009. Preacher's BBQ also started dishing it out that year at 1040 Fourth St. N. In September, Fred Fleming opened Champions' BBQ at 4400 Fourth St. N, across from Luckie B's. Big Dick's BBQ opened in October at 5720 Fourth St. N.

"We've got 39,500 cars driving by here every day. There are plenty of customers to go around," said Joey Cassady, who works at Champions BBQ. (He's close. According to Pinellas County the daily count is 33,500 cars.)

Luckie B's owner Burton Bullard said even as other stores have opened after him he hasn't lost sales.

"That's the restaurant business. You can't stop people from opening right across the street. I'm not sure what (Fleming's) thought process was but there's enough to go around," said Bullard, who also is part of the family business that owns three Durango Steakhouses. Luckie B's, which cooks over oak and pecan wood, has a diverse menu with steaks and seafood to keep customers coming back more often.

"We've found in the barbecue business, regardless of whether you're the only guy in town or there are 10 around you, you need to diversify," he said.

Bernard Butler Sr., who owns Preacher's BBQ, saw a slight drop in business when some of the other barbecue places first opened, but they haven't hurt him.

"It's like any business, you have your good days and your bad days. For the most part it's been pretty good," said Butler, who is an assistant preacher at Gateway Christian Center on Central Avenue. His store has about four tables and does mostly takeout and catering.

Butler has a history with barbecue from working at Connie's Bar-B-Q starting at age 11. His aunt, Connie Siermons, started her restaurant in 1986 after working more than a dozen years at Geech's, the legendary restaurant that started on 22nd Street S in the 1930s. Preacher's doesn't serve Geech's "secret sauce," but Butler said he learned some other tricks of the trade from his aunt.

"I'm not too worried about the competition. I just focus on my food and making the customers happy," said Eric Dick, owner of Big Dick's BBQ. He used to own a martial arts school but opened the restaurant with a family recipe after his wife died recently because she wanted him to follow his dream of cooking.

After doing $265,000 in sales his first month of business on Fourth Street in 1999, Fleming sold 70 percent of his company to an outside investor in 2000. By 2003 the relationship had soured and he left the company. He was barred from opening a competing restaurant nearby so he ran Champions BBQ in Homosassa for a while.

In 2009, when the Fred Fleming's on Fourth Street closed, the landlord asked Fleming to bring his business back there. Since Fleming, a one-time general contractor, had spent time and money fixing up the store in 1999, he opted for a smaller place across the street that didn't require as much work.

His store now has 27 seats compared to the 102 he served in what is now Luckie B's. When asked if he would like a bigger place, Fleming and his wife, Cassie, replied with a resolute "no." They stay plenty busy.

Fleming said his business has been affected by the sluggish economy but not by competing stores.

"I have no competition because I'm tournament tested. Nobody in the state of Florida has half the awards I do," he beamed. Fleming turned his backyard hobby into his life's calling when he traveled the country with a smoker during the '90s competing in barbecue contests far and wide.

"I won the people's choice award in 20 different cities. They say barbecue is regional. Well it ain't regional for me because everywhere I go people go nuts over my barbecue," he said. He offers multiple sauces to please every palate, he added. He thinks in time his store and Preacher's will be the only ones that stay in business on Fourth Street.

Fleming competed on the national barbecue circuit under the name Fat Fred's. But when he divorced his previous wife, Dottie, in 2000 she got rights to that name. She sold those rights to Frank Edgar, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He's also the grandson of the owners of the H&D Cafeteria that operated in Northeast Park Shopping Center for 47 years. Edgar now competes under the name Fat Fred's and sells "Fat Fred's award winning BBQ" at his restaurant, Cafe 1001 at 1001 Central Ave., and his Creative Catering Co.

Whew! Could somebody please bring a sweet tea over this way. Keeping up with the barbecue business is exhausting.

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@tampabay.com.

Competition is spicy on Fourth Street barbecue corridor 04/03/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 1:34pm]
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