Published in the Greenville News on January, 15 2003 Written by Abe Hardesty
When he had only 24 hours to raise the $500 he needed to continue getting electricity at his home, Wayne Preston’s economic plight had reached a crisis stage. Preston, struggling in the wake of the financial collapse of his woodworking machinery business, was broke.
“I was so broke, I remember telling my son he had to eat his cereal dry, because there was no milk,” says Preston.
That day, Preston turned to an old backyard hobby, cooking barbecue. In the process, he found a message from God, and a new career. After cooking barbecue overnight, Preston placed two folding tables alongside his Roper Mountain Road property and desperately waved a cardboard sign exhorting $5 barbecue plates. At the end of the day, he had just over $500.
“People just kept stopping along the side of the road. It was interesting because they weren’t expecting to see anyone selling food along there,” says Preston, who was in the middle of an area zoned industrial at the time.
“To me, it was God saying, ‘Wayne, I’ll take care of you, if you’ll trust me.’”
Working primarily as a welder at the time, Preston continued selling his slow-cooked barbecue at roadside – an endeavor that helped form a vision for a new career.
Then Preston confronted a message at Brookwood Baptist Church that seemed tailored to his situation. “I heard that a person should attempt something so great that without God’s help, it would be impossible, “ Preston says.
Opening a restaurant on his former machine-shop property, with no operating capital, indeed seemed impossible. The building didn’t have a kitchen and would require $40,000 for renovations and a sewer hookup; and it stood in an area zoned for industrial use.
But in 1998, the Greenville County Council approved a zoning change. And four of Preston’s friends each wrote 10 letters seeking donations, resulting in $28,000 in gifts that were applied to the sewer line and renovations. Today , the recollection of those contributions brings tears, and a pause that is uncommon for the talkative Greenville native.
In April 1999, sharing a building with a pest-control company, Bucky’s Bar-B-Q opened with three tables and a dream of serving 60 people a day during lunch and dinner. Today, the pest-control company is gone, the dining room includes 96 seats, and averages 100 guests for lunch alone. And often, he serves even more than that by catering his barbecue and homemade sauces to surrounding businesses.
“It’s grown at least five times faster than I thought it would,” says Preston, who had no restaurant experience before he created the cafe that is decorated in ball caps. A visitor can find hundreds of caps there, one of them from “Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Boat Company.”
For Preston, who left school at age 16, a successful restaurant business once seemed just as unlikely as the fictional shrimp-fishing endeavor of Forrest Gump. He had spend 23 years in the woodworking business when it crashed , leaving him with $2 million in debts.
Declaring bankruptcy would have been the easy way out. Preston instead liquidated company assets and sold his personal residence, moving the family into the old business warehouse. That trimmed his debts to about $700,000, which he continues paying today.
“I had suppliers that I had known for 15 years; I couldn’t leave the business owing them $100,000,” Preston explains. “I was raised in a strong Christian home. Bankruptcy was the wrong thing to do. I decided to battle it out.”
Preston has been digging his way out with 13-hour work days Wednesday through Saturday, when the restaurant is open from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m.; he’s open for lunch only on Tuesdays, and is closed Sunday and Monday.
Son Zach, a senior economics major at Anderson College, provides some help. Much more comes from son-in-law Kelly Shealy, who learned the barbecue business at his aunt’s restaurant in Batesburg.
When Preston opened the restaurant, his sauce was hardly unique: He bought it off grocery store shelves. Eventually, he came up with a vinegar-based hot pepper sauce of his own; he has since added a tomato-based sauce, and Shealy created a mustard-based sauce.
“He’s got a (pepper) sauce that is sweet, sour and hot at the same time,” says retired deputy sheriff Murray Waynick, who helps serve catered meals. “A lot of people come here for that. I think the barbecue tastes good because he cooks it a lot longer than most people do.”
Preston came up with the name “Bucky” simply because it was “something catchy.” He’s since adopted it as a nickname, as has son Zach.
A full staff, says Preston, must wait until some debts are paid. The same is true for luxuries like advertising.
“My advertising,” says Preston, “is on your plate.”