February 2015
Homeplace & Community

Gold Rush in Selma

Mike Hancock of Selma gives a thumbs up for his barbecue restaurant’s most famous wall attraction.  

Hancock’s Country Barbecue’s secret sauce dates to the 1840s.

Success stories often have unusual beginnings, but one in Selma is particularly inspiring because of a 12-year-old boy and his paper route.

Mike Hancock’s determination to save every penny he could eventually led to a barbecue business ranked among the most popular in Alabama.

After spending 20 years working for Progressive Farmer magazine in Birmingham, Ed Hancock wanted to change career directions and needed a down payment to get started in a chicken restaurant.

Mike provided his dad with $750 from his paper route earnings. It enabled the Hancocks to head for Selma in 1965, where chicken eventually turned to barbecue and a sauce dating back to the Gold Rush days in California.

Hancock’s Country Barbecue has become so famous that it’s been included in a new book about the best of the best in Bama – mentioned along with legendary businesses such as Dreamland Bar-B-Que in Tuscaloosa and Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur.

  Mike removes a large Boston butt from the cooker at Hancock’s Country Bar-B-Que.

"Hard work is the reason for our success," said Mike during an interview at his restaurant just outside the Selma city limits. "I can still remember peeling hundreds of pounds of potatoes when we got started in the chicken business."

A city boy who fell in love with the country, Mike found a way to relax after school and family business chores were done for the day. That’s when he and his buddies headed for the great outdoors.

"My granddaddy taught me how to hunt and fish," he said. "I soon found out that I was living in heaven, a real paradise in this part of Alabama. I still can’t wait to get out in the woods."

The secret to most successful food-and-beverage related businesses often is a recipe locked away in a safe. Think Col. Sanders and Coke. Some of the ingredients of Hancock’s Country Barbecue Sauce are listed on labels attached to unique little plastic containers.

Those ingredients include cider vinegar, catsup, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, lemon, spices, celery seeds and ground red pepper. The combination, amounts and TLC make the recipe unique and a closely guarded secret.

Credit for the sauce goes to John Jacob "Jake" Hancock, Mike’s great-great-great grandfather "sometime in the 1840s," according to the label.

  Deborah Hancock holds two containers of their Selma restaurant’s popular barbecue sauce – the recipe dating back to the Gold Rush days in California.

During the Gold Rush in California, he had an old barn called "Jake’s Eating Place" where he barbecued pork and beef using the recipe that became famous for its unique flavor.

"We’ve had the recipe analyzed at Auburn University where the calorie count was high because of the sugar," Mike said. "We weren’t all that surprised. One of the best things about our sauce is its lengthy shelf life due to the vinegar."

He also found butter added to the original recipe "seemed to come to the top" so he took it out and added more spices.

"We use a couple different spices that people don’t normally use," he said with a sly smile before adding: "Everybody asks what they are and I tell’em they can find out if they want to buy the place so I can retire."

Retirement may not be that far away for Mike and Deborah Hancock who have created a successful business and family partnership they want to see continue.

Richard Carter chops onions at Hancock’s Country Bar-B-Que – selected as one of the best in Alabama.  

Daughters Emily and Erin are expected to keep it going once retirement dreams become a reality for their parents. Until then, Mike and Deborah hover over the business and loyal customers who fill the restaurant.

"We’d probably take a few million and then reserve the rights to distribute what we produce including our own special slaw," said Mike, whose sense of humor has kept him going through tough times dating back to the start of the business decades ago.

Deborah is the guiding force keeping the restaurant running smoothly – from supervision of the staff to paying the bills, the taxes and everything else related to the operation.

"Some people think what we do is easy, but I set them straight right away," she said. "It takes a lot more than just making the barbecue. That’s where hard work comes in."

Deborah is a business disciplinarian who won’t put up with customers who might let loose with a naughty word or act up in other ways. She lets them know they are expected to behave properly in her restaurant.

"See that sign up there," she’ll say, pointing to one that says "Be Nice Or Leave" and she’s not kidding. It’s rare when a customer is "asked" to leave because most of those who frequent Hancock’s Country Barbecue are "nice."

  Former Orrville Mayor Gene McHugh, left, enjoys lunch with Mike Hancock, owner of the Selma restaurant bearing his family’s name.

The ambiance surrounding customers in their booths reflects country living with mounted deer heads, a red fox named Terry positioned next to a rattlesnake not far from the restaurant’s calling card – the head of a 200-pound boar topped by a dark-colored derby.

"Some people seem scared when they see it for the first time, but they can’t get enough of it and come back," said Mike. "A friend was going through a divorce and his soon-to-be ex-wife let him know the first thing she wanted out of the house was that boar."

The porker was plugged in the Plantersville area north of Selma and then mounted. Mike got it about 15 years ago when the shooter’s wife got her wish and the boar wound up on a wall of Hancock’s Country Bar-B-Que.

Singer Hank Williams Jr., star major league baseball pitcher Jake Peavy and NASCAR great Bobby Allison are among many notables who drop by for lunch whenever they’re in town.

The restaurant’s best customer and biggest supporter was the late Kathryn Tucker Windham who lived in Selma and often brought friends to Hancock’s to taste the barbecue.

In addition to barbecued beef and pork, the Hancocks also operated a successful catfish business for a decade before an electrical fire destroyed it a few years ago.

Mac’s Fish Camp was located deep in the country near Alabama’s first state capital at Cahawba, about 10 miles from the barbecue restaurant, but it didn’t deter customers from driving there to have catfish for dinner or supper.

Now, about that $750 down payment provided by Mike for his dad to get started in the restaurant business – Ed never forgot his son’s love and generosity.

A motorcycle was a reciprocating gift and Mike couldn’t wait to hop on board for a ride into the country. Other bikes were bought in the years that followed.

"My friends and I would grab our shotguns and off we’d go," said Mike, 62, who often thinks back to the "good old days."

New memories are developing for Mike because of his family restaurant’s selection as one of best barbecue businesses in Alabama.

Alabama Travel and Tourism Director Lee Sentell said more than 300 barbecue operations attract customers around the state and those outlined in "Alabama Barbecue," a new book about a delicious subject, have reason to beam and brag.

"After several years of focusing on food in general, we decided that what people most like to talk about after football is barbecue and which restaurant is the best," said Sentell.

For that reason, he said barbecue is the culinary topic for 2015 with more than 75 restaurants profiled in the book.

"From what we understand, a survey has determined that Alabama has a higher ratio of barbecue restaurants than any other state in the country," said Sentell.

That being said, it’s unlikely any one of the restaurants profiled in the new book can claim they are the best without the others stepping forward to stay the same thing.

That certainly would include Hancock’s Bar-B-Que in Selma, where a special Gold Rush sauce has had customers lined up for more than four decades.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.