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ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Smoke rolled from the side of the building. Within minutes flames leapt from the roof. By the time the fire department extinguished the blaze, the roof had collapsed and Southern Soul, the half-century-old converted gas station that Harrison Sapp and Griffin Bufkin had turned into a haven for barbecue lovers was gutted.
The fire happened in 2010, just months after Guy Fieri of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” the Food Network favorite, had filmed a segment that was bound to shoot Southern Soul to stardom. But to hear Sapp tell it, something special resulted from their hopes and dreams going up in smoke.
“The whole island took care of us,” Sapp said. “The building was still smoking, I thought our little dream was done and he’s standing there telling me we could use his warehouse for as long as we needed to.”
He is Davis Love III, PGA Championship winner, Ryder Cup captain, host of the island’s PGA Tour stop, the RSM Classic, who grew up on this part of a chain of barrier islands nicknamed the Golden Isles, working in the cart barn as a teenager and cutting the crab grass out of the greens at Sea Island’s Seaside Course with a hook knife. Love, the unofficial mayor of the island, helped give the restaurant a new lease on life.
Just weeks after the fire, Southern Soul was back in business, operating first under a canvas tarpaulin and then a mobile food trailer. Sapp remembers being hot and sweaty and just plain dirty. Every chance he could, he’d escape for some A/C.
“I would go into their office (at Crown Sports Management, which represents Love) like Kramer in ‘Seinfeld’ and just sit on their couch and talk to them forever,” Sapp recalled. “We just became friends.”
Bufkin and Sapp had served Love over the years in their previous lives as bartenders at various island establishments, but they struck up a friendship over food.
“Davis loves barbecue more than anybody you’ve ever met,” Sapp said. “He’d rather be cooking barbecue than anything.”
— Southern Soul BBQ (@southernsoulbbq) April 3, 2020
That segment of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” aired in the fall of 2010, not long after Southern Soul moved back into a restored version of its original restaurant at the side of a roundabout just a mile off the beach. Business boomed.
“It’s amazing what happens when he comes,” Love said of Fieri. Not long after, Garden & Gun heaped praise and pretty soon it snowballed to Southern Living proclaiming Southern Soul “the best barbecue in the south.”
During the RSM Classic, if you’re looking to meet a professional golfer, just take a seat at one of Southern Soul’s picnic tables and wait. Jimmy Walker and Trey Mullinax were among the first pros to show up. Walker critiqued the brisket, and Mullinax wondered why they closed so early. Zach Johnson, Jonathan Byrd, Keith Mitchell, Hudson Swafford and Harris English – who says, “It’s hard to beat that weekday worker pulled pork sandwich and fries, but I need a nap afterwards,” – are among the local pros who eat there regularly.
“When they are younger they eat there a lot,” Sapp said. “When they get married, their wives don’t let them go there as much. They won’t say that, but that’s the truth.”
On Tuesday of tournament week, Sapp began cooking in the oak-fired Lang and Oyler pits at 1 a.m. to cater lunch on the driving range at Sea Island, which has become a tradition like no other.
Love, who likes to stop by for the Thursday pastrami special, inquired after the fire about expanding the business and ended up going in as a partner in Southern Soul. (In 2019, they opened a second restaurant, Frosty’s Griddle and Shake – you haven’t lived until you’ve tried the Davis Love III pimento cheeseburger – and currently have a building under contract in Brunswick, Georgia, for their first restaurant off island.)
“Yeah, I’m shocked how it has blown up,” said Love, who can be found pitching in to cook Boston butt, smoked for 12-14 hours over oak, at Southern Soul when they are short-handed. “I’m their least talented, highest-priced employee.”
Love moved to the island as a child in 1978, when his father, famed teaching pro Davis Love Jr., was given a blank slate to start an instructional school anywhere in the country he wanted. He chose Sea Island Resort, and Davis has called this place halfway between Savannah, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida, home ever since. With his golf and business successes, Love, the winner of 21 PGA Tour titles, could have moved anywhere, but he and wife Robin, his high-school sweetheart, never considered leaving and built a home nestled among live oaks and palms on a secluded five-acre lot with prime marsh frontage. For a decade, Love hosted the RSM Classic’s pro-am draft party in a tent in his backyard, where participants feasted on the island’s best low-country cuisine, including barbecue from Southern Soul.
Sapp gets all choked up when he thinks of Love’s contributions to the community, some of which are well-documented through his Davis Love Foundation, which has raised more than $14 million in its first 12 years hosting the tournament to support charities focused on children and families in need. But there are other acts of kindness for which Love seeks no publicity. Take, for one, how Love cooked up all the food in their freezer and gave it away to locals when the island lost power during a hurricane a few years ago, and his efforts to support the restaurant business when COVID-19 hit and threatened many of his regular haunts.
“He would book parties with them and pre-pay for everything – jeez it is hard to talk about – to help them pay their rent,” Sapp said. “He wouldn’t say he was paying their rent, but that’s basically what he was doing. He booked two parties with us that he didn’t have for a year and a half. He was doing that all over the island. I mean, he’s legit. I’d kill somebody for him.”
Flames fully engulf the St. Simons Island home of Davis Love III in 2020. [Kyle Jurgens, Glynn County Fire and Rescue]
On March 27, 2020, 10 years to the day that Southern Soul burned to the ground, Love’s home was destroyed in an early-morning two-alarm fire. Thankfully, no one was injured. Just as Love was the first resident on the scene to lend a helping hand when Southern Soul was engulfed in flames, Sapp and his wife returned the favor, cooking breakfast for the Love family and first responders.
“It was really sad that it happened to him,” Sapp said. “We all sat there and watched it burn.”
But just as Southern Soul came back better than ever, Love has proved he can conquer all. When he speaks of the fire, it doesn’t take long for him to shift the conversation to the outpouring of support his family received.
“I feel so blessed,” he said.
Family keepsakes were lost, but what Love learned to appreciate is that he truly is a beloved member of the community, an island institution every bit as much as the avenue of oaks dripping with moss that stand sentinel at Sea Island’s entranceway, or the bag piper playing at sunset. For Love, this whole island will always be home.