URBANA — Before Hickory River opened in Urbana in January 1995, Joyce Smith got a sneak preview of the Texas barbecue it would be serving.
“We were remodeling, and they stopped in one day,” founder Brad Bowman said. “We’re like, ‘Do you want to try the food?’ They sat down; they were the first people we fed.”
“Your sauce wasn’t even ready. You hadn’t perfected it yet,” Smith said Tuesday while grabbing lunch at the Urbana restaurant, which she and husband Alan still do about once a week.
“Every chance I get,” she said.
Smith ended up working for Hickory River for about 10 years, and as soon as she made her way to the front of the line Tuesday, Bowman gave her a big hug.
“It’s good food. It’s friendly,” she said. “I loved working here.”
The company is celebrating 25 years in business since it opened Jan. 16, 1995, on Cunningham Avenue.
That first day, Bowman said he wasn’t 100 percent confident in his beef brisket, so he decided the night before to give away their food.
“Our brisket just wasn’t right, and I’m like, ‘I can’t open a brisket joint unless it’s perfect,’” said Bowman, who now lives in Florida but makes it back to Urbana regularly.
Although he said the brisket turned out “absolutely perfect” that first day, they decided to still give away the food, “and it lasted until about 2 o’clock.”
When Hickory River opened, barbecue wasn’t as popular as it is now.
“I’m from the area; barbecue was sloppy Joe when I was growing up. It was ground beef or whatever with barbecue sauce,” Bowman said.
He didn’t learn about real barbecue until he met his wife, Krista, who took him to a Texas barbecue joint when he went to meet her parents.
“I was like, ‘Wow.’ That’s not to say it wasn’t around. Somebody was doing it, I guess, but I just never had it, especially smoked beef,” Bowman said. “It was always in the back of our minds that this would go great in Illinois.”
When it opened, Hickory River didn’t have pulled pork on its menu; that wasn’t added until 2011.
“Texas isn’t known for its pigs,” Bowman said.
Instead, they focused on their beef brisket.
“Brad absolutely brought brisket to Champaign-Urbana,” franchisee Mike Madigan said.
“The most-asked question to me at the time was, ‘What is brisket?’ We brought brisket to this area,” Bowman said. “It was mostly pork barbecue here.”
While Po’Boys and Lil Porgy’s were around back then, barbecue wasn’t as popular as it is now, and there was certainly no guarantee of success.
“The guy that loaned us the money, I had to give him the title of my car and my wife’s wedding ring,” Bowman said. “It cost us $30,000 to get that restaurant going. Luckily, it made it.”
More than 25 years later, it’s more than made it.
This Saturday, Hickory River in Urbana is celebrating with half-price dinners, the same deal it had when it turned a year old.
“We’re going to do half-price dinner plates from 4 o’clock to close,” Madigan said. “Dine-in only.”
“We didn’t have a drive-thru at the time,” Bowman explained.
Hickory River now has five locations — in Urbana, Decatur, Peoria and Springfield, as well as Tipp City, Ohio.
Madigan and his wife, Sinead, own the franchise for the four Illinois locations and are planning to open another this summer in southwest Champaign at Carle at the Fields.
It will be directly south of the large Carle administration building and have about 80 seats inside, 50 to 60 on the patio and a full bar.
“We have certainly had all kinds of people ask us to open in Champaign, and nothing’s really intrigued us as much as this,” Madigan said.