When the power went out after Hurricane Michael, the only thing Mike Sparks could think to do to keep the meat from spoiling at the Sparks and Sons St. George Island Grocer was to throw it in the smoker.
So, he loaded up the required equipment and set it up in front of the grocery store, which he owns with his father. There, he began cooking meals for the community, using a knowledge and passion for barbeque he learned working under pit masters in Alabama.
“We started cooking barbeque after Hurricane Michael out of the meat case because the meat was going bad. So we decided to take a Port St. Joe welded smoker and started cooking in the parking lot, and from there it just kind of expanded,” said Sparks. “Every year we expanded the business — grew it into just a weekend business, to a four day a week business, to a seven day a week business.”
Now, Sparks’s barbeque business has taken up permanent residence on Reid Avenue in Port St. Joe as Sparks Bar-B-Que and Brew.
The brick and mortar location opened a little over a month ago, and Sparks said that the business’ evolution is clear in everything from the carefully tried and tested home recipes to the building’s decor.
“It all goes back to Hurricane Michael,” he said.
“The bar we built in there, the wood floorboards, is actually the hardwood floor from my house after Hurricane Michael hit… It’s a reminder.”
Sparks has since upgraded from his welded smoker, and now the barbeque company uses a larger hickory smoker, which he said has increased both the quality and the quantity of the product.
The build up of the business gave Sparks the time to hone his technique, he said. Particularly, he has been able to find his perfect blend of woods to create the desired flavor.
“Our saying is ‘all about the smoke.’ So what that means is that we use good cherry, hickory natural oak woods — very clean, organic woods,” said Sparks. “… I know it sounds crazy talking about wood, but that’s what the flavor profile is in barbeque.”
Sparks said he grew up in the restaurant scene, but his passion for barbeque was born out of a job he held while living in Alabama, where he attended university after graduating from Port St. Joe High School.
“I learned all this when I worked at Dreamland Barbeque, which is a big barbeque restaurant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I used to hang out with all the pitmasters out there on a Friday night before a big Alabama game, and they taught me a lot of the pit master stuff… and the passion just kind of led to this,” he said.
“It’s been a lot of build up, a lot of trial-and-error, a lot of burning, a lot of messing things up, and listening to customers and what they want, and really refining everything.”
His passion for barbeque has caused Sparks to draw influence from many regional styles.
Sparks carries several varieties of barbeque sauce — a tupelo honey bourbon sauce using local ingredients, a Texas style red sauce, a ketchup-based Kansas City style sauce, a North Alabama style white sauce and a Carolina Style spicy vinegar sauce.
The business also draws inspiration from other aspects of Sparks’ past — namely his love for sports.
Sparks played football at the University of Alabama and said he has always had a great passion for sports.
In the location on Reid Avenue, sports memorabilia covers the walls, and he’s hoping to source more of it.
“I keep telling people to bring some in for their team,” he joked. “It’s a little Alabama-heavy right now.”
Sparks Bar-B-Que and Brew is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. EDT. Sparks said he hopes to host a grand opening event for the business in the coming weeks.
This story is the first of a limited series of features The Star will be releasing on a weekly basis exploring Gulf County’s growing food scene.