David Bessinger shares his family’s savory barbecue history
BY WENDY SWAT SNYDER
Melvin David Bessinger's passion for what he puts on a plate is as deeply-rooted as the pride he has for family. The third-generation pit-master comes from a long line of BBQ Pioneers with mustard sauce in their blood. In fact, the family's name is synonymous with smoked meats and down-home restaurants like Melvin's BBQ that have served South Carolina for 80 years.
According to Bessinger's wife Debbie, who traveled with him to Texas on a barbecue pilgrimage a few years ago, “David eats, breathes and dreams barbecue.”
When I reached David on his cell phone for an interview, he said he wanted to start at the beginning, and proceeded to take me back to 1933 on the Orangeburg farm of his “granddaddy,” Joe Bessinger, who invented the mustard-based sauce that defines South Carolina-style barbecue. “I don’t think there is another mustard sauce that compares to my grandfather’s.”
“Big Joe gave it to his kids,” says David of the secret sauce recipe—a golden variety influenced by the Germans who settled the area and their love of mustard. “Almost every one of the kids went into the restaurant business.”
One of those kids was David’s dad, Melvin, who he describes as a visionary who returned from World War II in 1946 and used his army paychecks to buy the land for Eat at Joe’s, an eatery in Holly Hill—featuring longtime family recipes.
“Dad later took a break from the business to earn a degree from The Citadel,” says David. “When he returned to the restaurant, [highway] I-26 was coming through, so he relocated to Charleston and worked in eateries owned by his brother JD.”
All the pieces of Melvin’s barbecue history came together in1978, when Melvin had a vision for Mount Pleasant, and opened the first Melvin's BBQ. With its success came more openings in James Island, Summerville and Hilton Head. And a few years later, the original eatery was relocated to its present location in Mt. Pleasant.
“Dad happened to see this property on Houston Northcutt,” notes Bessinger. “He liked that it had a big oak tree on it so he bought it.”
Shapton Shapiro, Publications Strategist for Melvin's BBQ, elaborates further, “David is a history buff and I think he prefers to talk about the people who shaped him rather than himself. His father, Melvin, was a defining influence who taught him life lessons and work ethics. David started working for him at age ten. At twenty-one, he was working full time, but not before Melvin fired him—perhaps because David needed to prove he was fully invested in the family business.”
Today, David presides over the remaining local Melvin’s BBQ operations, while his wife Debbie manages the office end of the family run business.
Asked how he stands out from the competition—barbecue joints being ubiquitous in the South—David points to his smoking methods.
“We don't use gas-assisted pits, only wood, hickory wood,” he says, adding that he wanted to go back to his roots—his grandfather. “And you really need special people to cook the product properly.”
It takes the extended family of Melvin’s BBQ to make it happen. “Betty McKinley started working for my Dad over forty-five years ago in the kitchen. She has always been with us, she’s essential to our family,” says David. Debbie could not agree more, pointing to Melvin’s pitmasters, Michael Hensley and Vincent Kinloch—each bringing their unique flavor and technique to the fire pit at Melvin’s BBQ.
“David takes the time, researching the best meat, wood, and the best methods,” adds Shapiro, “like how to achieve that smoke ring without under- or over-cooking the meat. His innovative spirit adds fire to our local barbecue traditions.” Melvin’s was the first to serve brisket in a Charleston barbecue restaurant. And David continues to bring it to the table—soon offering a house-made sausage consisting of a combination of beef and pork, Texas style.
The night I stopped in with a friend to dine, the place impressed with plenty of down-home charm. An enormous smoker dominated a back patio adjacent to picnic table seating tucked into a fenced-in corner. The entire property is engulfed by lush landscaping and the old live oak that first caught the eye of Melvin Bessinger.
Inside Melvin's, we found a welcoming, rustic setting with soaring wood beams overhead and dining tables bearing various pickled products and plenty of the famous sauces. A wall of framed photographs traces Melvin’s family history over a lifetime spent in hospitality.
We stepped up to the counter where we were greeted by a friendly and knowledgeable staff led by manager Theteka Rambert, who sent out a platter loaded with smoked meats and sides. The signature chopped pork was moist, tender, lightly smoked and flavored with Melvin's secret mustard sauce. Thick pork ribs were perfectly cooked, with a crunchy crust, tender inside and the right touch of smoky heat. Meaty chicken wings were crisp and zesty with a not-overpowering dry-rub—a crowd-pleaser. The delicious pulled chicken dish was also tender and moist and slathered in spicy Melvin's Southern Red barbecue sauce.
The classic American cheeseburger famously declared “the best” by Emeril Lagasse was stuffed with local tomatoes from Limehouse Produce and, as David notes, a little messy—that's what makes them great.
Sides included sweet, doughnut-sized Vidalia onion rings and refreshingly tangy coleslaw. The homemade lemonade touted a recipe of fresh lemons, sugar and water, and it tasted like just that.
“All of our sauce recipes are a little different. Nobody knows who has Grandad's original version anymore—which he never did write down,” says David, adding with a smile, “but we all claim to have it.”
Melvin’s family story is a savory slice of South Carolina history. Whether you're hosting a catered get-together at home or yearning to get out for a laid-back meal, there's no question that Melvin's BBQ delivers authentic flavors straight from the smoker to your plate.
925 Houston Northcutt Blvd.
538 Folly Road.