NS. SIMONS ISLAND, Georgia – Smoke rose from the side of the building. Flames broke from the roof in a matter of minutes. When the fire department put out the fire, 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 struck in 2010, just months after Guy Fieri of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” the Food Network’s favorite, filmed a section that would star Southern Soul. But hearing Sapp tell it was special because her hopes and dreams went up in smoke.
“The whole island took care of us,” said Sapp. “The building was still smoking, I thought our little dream had come true and he stands there and tells me we can use his warehouse as long as we need it.”
He is Davis Love III, PGA Championship winner, Ryder Cup captain, host of the island’s PGA Tour stop, RSM Classic, who grew up on this part of a chain of barrier islands nicknamed the Golden Isles and in the cart barn as Teenager cutting the crab grass with a hook knife from the greens of the Seaside Course at Sea Island. Love, the island’s unofficial mayor, brought the restaurant back to life.
Just weeks after the fire, Southern Soul was back in business, operating first under a tarpaulin and then under a mobile food truck. Sapp remembers being hot and sweaty and just plain dirty. At every opportunity he could, he would flee for air conditioning.
“I went to their office (at Crown Sports Management, which represents love) like Kramer in ‘Seinfeld’ and just sat on their couch and talked to them forever,” recalled Sapp. “We just became friends.”
Bufkin and Sapp had served Love in their previous lives as bartenders at various eateries around the island, but they became friends over food.
“Davis loves barbecue more than anyone you’ve ever met,” said Sapp. “He prefers to cook barbecue than anything else.”
@ Love3d Social Distancing on the boxes today #EssentialWorker pic.twitter.com/KPX6UhSygb
– Southern Soul BBQ (@southernsoulbbq) April 3, 2020
This section of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” aired in the fall of 2010, not long after Southern Soul retreated to a restored version of its original restaurant on a roundabout just a mile from the beach. Business was booming.
“It’s amazing what happens when he comes,” Love said of Fieri. Not long after that, Garden & Gun’s praise was piling up and soon it became Southern Living, proclaiming Southern Soul “the best barbecue in the south”.
If you want to meet a professional golfer during the RSM Classic, just take a seat at one of Southern Soul’s picnic tables and wait. Jimmy Walker and Trey Mullinax were among the first professionals to show up. Walker criticized the brisket, and Mullinax wondered why they had closed so early. Zach Johnson, Jonathan Byrd, Keith Mitchell, Hudson Swafford and Harris English – who says, “It’s hard to beat the worker pulling pork sandwich and fries during the week, but I need a nap after” – are among the local pros who who eat there regularly.
“When they are younger, they eat a lot there,” said Sapp. “When they get married, their wives don’t let them go there so often. They won’t say that, but that’s the truth. “
On Tuesday of tournament week, Sapp started cooking at 1am in Lang and Oyler’s oak-fired pits to serve lunch on the Sea Island driving range, which has become a tradition like no other.
Love, who likes to drop by for the Thursday Pastrami Special, asked about the fire to expand the business and eventually joined Southern Soul as a partner. (In 2019 they opened a second restaurant, Frosty’s Griddle and Shake – you didn’t live until you tried the Davis Love III allspice cheeseburger – and currently have a building under contract in Brunswick, Georgia for their first off-island restaurant. )
“Yeah, I’m shocked how it blew up,” said Love, who is in the process of cooking Boston butt at Southern Soul, which has been smoked over oak for 12-14 hours when they are understaffed. “I am your least talented and most expensive employee.”
Love moved to the island as a child in 1978 when his father, the famous teacher Davis Love Jr., received a blank slate to open a teaching school anywhere in the country he wanted. He chose the 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 his wife, Robin, his high school mistress, never thought of going and built a house among live oaks and trees Palm trees on a secluded five-acre property with a first-class swamp facade. For a decade, Love hosted RSM Classic’s Pro-Am Draft Party in a tent in his backyard, where attendees could enjoy the island’s best low-country cuisine, including barbecue by Southern Soul.
Sapp gets choked to think 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 the first 12 years the tournament is run has raised to support charities that target children and families in need. But there are other kind deeds that love does not seek public for. Take, for example, how Love prepared all the groceries in her freezer and gave it away to the 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 its regular meeting places.
“He would book parties with them and prepay everything – damn, it’s hard to talk about – to help them pay their rent,” Sapp said. “He wouldn’t say he paid her rent, but basically he did. He booked two parties with us that he hadn’t had for a year and a half. He did that all over the island. I mean it’s legitimate. I would kill someone for him. “
On March 27, 2020, 10 years to the date that Southern Soul burned down, Love’s house was destroyed in an early morning fire with two alarms. Fortunatly nobody was hurt. Just as Love was the first resident on the scene to help when Southern Soul was on fire, Sapp and his wife returned the favor and cooked breakfast for the Love family and first responders.
“It was really sad that this happened to him,” said Sapp. “We all sat and watched it burn.”
But just as Southern Soul came back better than ever, Love has proven that he can conquer anything. When he talks about fire, he quickly shifts the conversation to supporting his family.
“I feel so blessed,” he said.
Family keepsakes have been lost, but what Love has come to appreciate is that he truly is a beloved member of the community, an island institution as well as the moss-drenched oak alley that keeps watch at the entrance to Sea Island or the bagpiper playing at sunset. This whole island will always be home for love.