The Woman Behind the Smoke
September 2021 Issue
By Kelly Hunter
Photography by Mike Force Photography
Southern Soul Barbecue has been in the news for a variety of reasons for more than a decade. Generally, the faces of the business are its founders, Harrison Sapp and Griffin Bufkin, but there is a woman behind the scenes who has been instrumental in the success of this St. Simons Island icon. Kitty Sapp has supported her husband’s love for barbecue from the beginning and is now an integral part of the business.
We sat down in the cozy office she shares with Harrison in the building behind Southern Soul. In addition to managing the front of house and merchandising for the restaurant, Kitty handles the bulk of the property management duties for the office building, which also has two tenants. “I like to stay busy,” she laughed. Did I mention Kitty is also treasurer and a board member for The Firebox Initiative? More on that later.
Although she has more than two decades of experience in the food service industry, Kitty studied journalism in college and wanted to be a radio DJ. We laughed about how many people end up working in a completely different field from their college major. “College is about four years of proving you can stick with something,” said Kitty. After graduation, she figured she could do better waiting tables on St. Simons Island than she had been in Conyers, so she moved to paradise.
When I asked her where she had waited tables on the island, Kitty laughed, “Where didn’t I wait tables?” From the Fourth of May to Dressner’s, she knows our local restaurants. It was during her stint at Island Rock Café that she met Harrison Sapp. “He was a bartender. I was a waitress. He used to pick on me, and it was just too much for me to stand, and I just fell in love,” Kitty explained. “He was a hard worker, too, so I was attracted to him already, you know?”
After dating for four years, Harrison and Kitty got married, welcoming son Brent the next year. Through all this, they continued to work in the food service industry, with Kitty eventually becoming manager of Frankie G’s. The stability of her management job, combined with a small inheritance, allowed Harrison to take a leap of faith and buy his first smoker. With Kitty’s support, he set it up in the backyard of their house and went to work perfecting his barbecue skills, trying out the results on friends and family.
Eventually, Harrison teamed with his friend Griffin Bufkin to begin selling barbecue at Palm Coast in the Pier Village, and Southern Soul Barbecue was born. It wasn’t long before they had many fans among St. Simons’ locals, including Frosty Barefoot, who owned the GISCO Seafood building at the corner of Frederica and Demere. When GISCO closed, Frosty approached his favorite BBQ boys to see if they were interested in the property.
Not long after they opened Southern Soul in its current location, Kitty started working at the front. There was already a front of house manager, but everyone figured Kitty would be running the show before long. In 2008, she officially became Front of House Manager for Southern Soul. Back then, there were only about 20 employees. Today Kitty manages around 45 folks at the restaurant.
In 2010, Southern Soul Barbecue got its big break when Guy Fieri visited and filmed a segment for the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” A month later, before the episode had even aired, the building caught fire. “We were just overwhelmed by all the support from the community as we worked to come back,” said Kitty. “It seemed like the fire to end all fires… but it was a remodel, not a rebuild.” Southern Soul and their landlord, Patricia Barefoot, kept the footprint of the iconic building the same, but Kitty says, “We were able to take it from gas station turned seafood market turned restaurant into just a restaurant that fit that footprint.” They now own the building next door, which is their smokehouse, but the team has been determined to keep the exterior looking close to what it looked like before the fire.
Inspired by the way the community supported them, and realizing how often food service workers need support in tough times, Southern Soul founded The Firebox Initiative. Taking Atlanta’s Giving Kitchen as a model, Firebox raises money to help food service workers pay bills when disaster strikes. It all started informally, with local restaurateurs coming together to find needs and fulfill them. Now there’s a board of directors, and they have adjusted to the changing economy, including the challenges of COVID. Firebox has added Crisis Grants to their operations, allowing food service workers to use the funds for some of the miscellaneous needs that come up when times are tough. The Fourth Annual Firebox on the Bluff Barbecue Invitational is scheduled for September 30th through October 2nd. Tickets can be purchased through ssbbqfirebox.com, and Kitty hopes y’all will come out for delicious barbecue, great music and an amazing cause!
Previous Experience: Kitty didn’t always work in the food industry. Before moving to St. Simons Island, she wanted to be on the radio. She worked at Talk 103.9 in Greensboro, Georgia.
Local Connections: Kitty’s husband and son both went to Glynn Academy, and Harrison’s family has a long history in Glynn County on his mother’s side.
Coming Through the Fire: The original (Lang 803) smoker was in regular use for 10 years, making it through the fire just fine. It now has a new life in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Harrison still uses it when he goes up to Zach Johnson’s golf tournaments.
Full House: Kitty shares her home with husband Harrison, son Brent, and their four dogs!
Worthy Cause: Even if you can’t make it to one of the fundraisers, you’re encouraged to donate to The Firebox Initiative at ssbbqfirebox.com