Local pitmasters own 17 Sonny's locations

The partners have restaurants from Jacksonville to Bushnell.

Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q franchise owners Ken Kirkpatrick, left, and Chip Dixon pose together at their restaurant in Alachua. The two own 17 Sonny's locations across North Central Florida.

Doug Finger/Staff Photographer
Published: Sunday, August 4, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 2, 2013 at 3:16 p.m.

Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q is trying to remind people it was doing barbecue before barbecue was cool.

"Right now, barbecue is a sexy topic," said franchisee Ken Kirkpatrick, 46. "You see it on every food channel. You go to these pitmaster cook-offs and things like that, so everybody's doing barbecue."

"Everybody's serving barbecue, but not everybody's serving real barbecue," said Chip Dixon, 52.

Dixon and Kirkpatrick own 17 Sonny's locations in Alachua, Ocala, Jacksonville, Bushnell, Leesburg, Lake City, Belleview, Inverness and The Villages.

The partners recently returned from the Sonny's annual convention in Orlando where the company unveiled its rebranding campaign to raise the profiles of local pitmasters.

The new logo boasts "local pitmasters since '68."

Kirkpatrick said they realized they need to get back to their roots by making pitmasters more accessible.

"Sonny was the original pitmaster, and that's how he built his restaurants, walking through his dining rooms," Kirkpatrick said.

Sonny Tillman opened his first restaurant on Waldo Road in Gainesville. He sold the chain to Orlando-area franchisees in 1991 but maintained partial ownership in a few locations until recent years.

Dixon and Kirkpatrick bought the Alachua location from Tillman in 2011 after his son, Robert, died of cancer at 49.

Sonny Tillman, who lives in Alachua, remains a regular of the location and has his own table in the back corner where photos of Sonny and Robert Tillman are mounted on the wall.

"Every time he comes in he's like a rock star, so it's kind of hard for him to get a peaceful meal in," Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick's father, John Kirkpatrick, was a Gainesville insurance salesman who had Tillman as a customer and became his first franchisee in 1977 when he opened a location on State Road 200 in Ocala.

"They signed an agreement on a napkin," Ken said.

Dixon went to work there as a cook in 1981 while attending Central Florida Community College. As John Kirkpatrick opened more locations, Dixon moved into management. He would leave the company to open Scully's Seafood in Gainesville in the late 1980s before returning in 1990 and becoming partners with John in 1995.

Ken Kirkpatrick spent a summer doing dishes at a Sonny's in Orlando and said he had no intention of going into the family business, instead starting his career as a mechanical engineer at Procter & Gamble.

He bought Heritage Management, a real estate management company in Ocala, in 1997. He said the experience with raising capital and financing would come in handy when he had an opportunity to buy three Sonny's locations in Jacksonville from Sonny's brother, Bobby, in 2001. About that time, John Kirkpatrick was retiring, and Ken teamed up with Dixon to buy the three locations, with Dixon handling restaurant operations and Kirkpatrick handling finance, accounting, marketing and real estate.

Today, their partnership is the second-largest franchise in the chain with 17 locations and almost 800 employees.

"Eight-hundred employees sounds much bigger than what we feel like we are," Dixon said from the dining room of the Alachua location. "We really consider ourselves 17 50-employee businesses where each one has its own personality, its own culture and is part of its own community, so we try to manage this so this store is involved with the local high school, with the churches, with the civic groups and becomes a vested part of this community.

"A lot of the Sonny's Bar-B-Qs out there have been built on relationships of folks like myself who started out cooking and serving, and they had an opportunity to realize the American dream because of guys like Sonny and John," Dixon said. "So that means a lot to me, and the opportunity to impact other people the way that I've been impacted by the folks at Sonny's, we feel a responsibility with the resources we've been given to do more than just serve barbecue."

"If we make some good food along the way, then that's a blessing too," Kirkpatrick added.

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