On a still, Saturday morning in spring 2010, a column of black smoke rose straight up over the south end of St. Simons Island. The smoke was clearly visible well west of Brunswick, and it signaled the first of some hard days for Griffin Bufkin and Harrison Sapp, the owners of Southern Soul BBQ, and a growing legion of faithful customers.
In spite of firefighters’ best efforts, the restaurant was gutted and shut down. Southern Soul has come all the way back thanks, Bufkin and Sapp say, to the generosity of the community. For the past seven or eight years, they’ve responded to that outpouring.
At this Saturday evening’s Firebox BBQ on the Bluff, Southern Soul and others of the country’s top chefs of barbecue and other fare will again fire up the grills to help those facing hard times.
“March 27, 2010, Harrison and I didn’t know how we were going to get through. We wanted to help out the people who helped us,’’ Bufkin said.
They did make it through, however, not only with their friends and customers standing with them but also other restaurants. As firefighters fought the roaring blaze at the Frederica-Demere Road roundabout, some watched nearly in tears.
In the aftermath, some bought grocery and gasoline gift cards to tide over the employees until the restaurant was rebuilt and the smoke started rising again from the cookers.
Bufkin and Harrison responded by supporting others’ causes and starting one of their own almost immediately. It helps the cooks, counter people, waiters and others in the restaurant business who suffer accidents, illnesses, hurricanes and other natural disasters without sufficient means to pay the bills. It also supports local scholarship activities, Bufkin said.
They have done barbecue based fundraisers about eight years but launched the Firebox initiative three years ago. Thus far, they have helped three people: One was the victim of a house fire, they helped another who had a series of surgeries and a third who was undergoing cardiac difficulties.
They are now looking at a fourth, the daughter of a restaurant worker, who is seriously ill.
“We haven’t turned anybody down yet,’’ Bufkin said.
Firebox is a venue for raising far more money than can be collected in the usual method, jars on counters where people can read appeals for help and drop in their change.
They string lights from the oaks on the south end of Gascoigne Bluff and put the smokers in a bunch and stoke the fire boxes.
Asked how they came to begin the fundraiser, Sapp said, “Basically we got all our friends together to do something for the ones who did something for us.”
Those friends are far-flung and it doesn’t include just the best in the country. Red Gum is coming from Victoria, Austrailia. Red Gum advertises itself as authentic southern American barbecue, and it’s easy to see why.
“He came up and shadowed Harrison in the pit house for a week,’’ Bufkin said.
“In August,’’ Sapp said with obvious admiration.
Others include: 17th Street BBQ of Murphysboro and Marion, Ill, B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue of Savannah, Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q of Atlanta, the BBQ Ninja from Yazoo City, Miss, Woodstack BBQ Tavern from Valdosta and Home Team BBQ from Charleston, S.C.
There is also at least one very familiar competitive cook team, Davis Love IIIs DL3 BBQ.
The heaviest hitter is Tuffy Stone, who won the world barbecue championship at Memphis in May with his Cool Smoke team.
“He would be the heavyweight,’’ Sapp said.
The menus are as varied as the misspellings of barbecue. The entrees go well beyond smoked Boston butts. The cooks will offer homemade sausage, ribs, beef brisket and whole hog, as well as local seafood and award-winning craft beer and wine.
The band Bonnie Blue will perform throughout the evening.
All the proceeds will go into the Firebox Initiative Inc. because of sponsorship. Sapp said “a local person put up all the money for the festival,’’ and Cisco is providing all the products for meat and side dishes.
Both Sapp and Bufkin said Gascoigne Bluff is a near perfect venue where the lights can hang along with the Spanish moss and the cooks can hang together.
“Every time I go to one of these things, they’ve got us in a parking lot beside a dumpster,’’ he said.
Besides, Gascoigne has a reputation for good times.
“We’ve been partying there since 1984,’’ Sapp said. “We’re the reason they put up the fence.’’
He did not elaborate.