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Though Li'l Porgy's is scaling back to one location, its future looks bright

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URBANA — There are restaurant owners and there are restaurant operators and then there’s Bill Van der Wyngaerde, the owner of Li’l Porgy’s Bar-B-Q.

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"I'm a working owner," he said. "I work my stores. Would you just hand over the key to your investment to someone else?”

For 40 years, the 76-year-old Urbana man has been sometimes part-owner and sometimes sole owner of the popular local barbecue empire. But he’s always been present.

If you’ve ever passed the restaurants at 101 W. University Ave., U, or 1917 W. Springfield Ave., C, you surely got a tantalizingly delectable whiff of meat cooking over hickory on an open pit.

The advertising reads: “Incredibly good ’cause we cook on wood.”

While Van der Wyngaerde jokes that the undertaker will likely carry him out of his business, as of 9 p.m. today, he will hand the keys to the Urbana store to a different business owner and report to work tomorrow only to his Champaign store.

Wood N’ Hog Barbecue, owned and operated by Michael McDonald, will open for business at 11 a.m. Monday.

“I’ll be 77 in September, so yes, I’m tired,” Van der Wyngaerde said of his reason for scaling back.

Later this year, his 49-year-old daughter will move to the area to learn the business from her dad in hopes that there will a Li’l Porgy’s for a long time to come.

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Bill Van der Wyngaerde, owner of Li'l Porgy's Bar-B-Q, works the cash register Tuesday, June 25, 2019, at the Urbana location, which is closing at the end of the month.

Innkeeper at heart

A native of Oglesby, just south of LaSalle, Peru and the Illinois River, Van der Wyngaerde developed his work ethic at an early age.

He mowed the lawn for his grandparents. He worked in a cheese factory during high school, lugging 60-pound cheese blocks at a time when he tipped the scales at 90.

He liked making his own money. Still does.

With an aptitude for solving math problems, he got a part-time job balancing the books at a hotel in East Peoria while attending college. His love of the work and the paychecks took precedence over college.

While working as an assistant manager at a Holiday Inn in LaSalle, Uncle Sam called. Married with no children, he was drafted in 1967 at age 25. After training at Fort Gordon, Ga., he was sent to Vietnam in January 1968, the beginning of the Tet Offensive.“I’d never been shot at before,” he said.

Thanks to his hotel skills, he was behind a desk at an air base working as a company clerk within a week of that rude introduction to Southeast Asia. “Typing saved my butt,” he said.

Released from the service in 1969, Van der Wyngaerde returned home and began looking at colleges that offered degrees in hotel and restaurant management. He found a good fit at the University of Denver. At 27, he was more motivated than his younger fellow students, and finished his degree in 1971.

The folks he worked for at the LaSalle Holiday Inn also owned the Holiday Inn on North Neil Street in Champaign and needed a manager.

“That’s how I got here,” said Van der Wyngaerde. “I didn’t go to graduation. I wanted a job.”

He loved the life of an innkeeper, meeting scores of interesting folks, including jazz great Louis Armstrong and Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nuryev.

That is, until Li’l Porgy’s came along.

The hotel bartender’s husband, Doug Emmit, decided to open a barbecue place at 101 W. University Ave., U, formerly a yogurt store. Emmit’s sister Becky was also involved and another of Emmit’s sisters had a good sauce recipe. Van der Wyngaerde helped out the siblings at their Urbana store. After about a month, Doug asked him to buy out Becky.

Having lost out on a position supervising several Holiday Inns, Van der Wyngaerde said yes to Emmit.

“Things happen for a reason,” said the man who attends morning Mass daily.

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A neon sign made by Dale Ihnen of Penfield sits on the wall of the Lil Porgy's restaurant on University Avenue in Urbana.

Math, not cooking

What did he know about barbecue in 1979?

“Nothing. I knew how to run a restaurant,” he said, calling Emmit the barbecue guy.

But Van der Wyngaerde knew math and bookkeeping and hard work and the value of showing up daily. He still employs those skills, using a computer program he developed linked to his cash register so he can track his best-sellers.

He arrives at the

Champaign store around 7:30 a.m., works a few hours ordering meat — usually always locally — and paying bills, drives to the Urbana store and runs the cash register from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., then heads back to the Champaign store. He usually calls it a day around 3:30 p.m., meeting up with his happy hour regulars. That is, unless there’s a catering gig in the evening.

Paco Herrera, who has been at the helm of his own office supply and service business for 43 years, is a longtime friend.

“He’s an honest guy, just plain honest, a nice guy,” Herrara said of Van der Wyngaerde. “He never gets in an argument with anyone.”

Van der Wyngaerde doesn’t purport to have any great insight into how to hire and retain good employees, but he must be doing something right.

Greg Glasper has cut meat for him for 37 years and Cleo White has worked at both stores for 33 years, even while holding other jobs. He has about 25 full- and part-time employees.

"I have one rule: Come in. Do your job. Leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone," he said. "It’s a simple thing.”

His wife of 23 years, Sandee; daughter Kymberlee Enfield and her son; and stepdaughters, Sunee Hickman, now of California, and Summer Burnett, who lives locally, all have worked for him. Burnett still works for him most weekends helping with catering jobs, as does Sandee.

“No special deals. You gotta earn your keep,” he said of the help related to him.

It’s the sauce, silly

Li’l Porgy’s opened at the Champaign location — Van der Wyngaerde leases both buildings — in 1983.

Doug Emmit got out of the business in 1984 and later, Dennis Reed, another colleague from Van der Wyngaerde’s hotel days, bought in. Reed was largely responsible for the catering side of the business but died in September 2015.

“I thought, ‘I can do both,’” said Van der Wyngaerde.

He could, but turns out, it’s exhausting.

“I work seven days a week. That’s why I’m downsizing,” he said, noting that most of his business is on the weekends.

While he doesn’t eat his own product every day, he has a preference.

"I kind of like the pork sandwich. It’s my favorite," he said. "I never bring food home, and once I had to borrow sauce from the neighbor. I bring chicken home sometimes, but I tell her, 'I could sell this and make money.'"

At about $6 for half a smoked chicken, fries and a drink, the Sunday special is a delicious bargain. Sandee Van der Wyngaerde joked that when her husband comes home and sees her with one of his smelly hickory-smoked shirts wrapped around her neck, he knows she needs a Li’l Porgy’s fix.

While she has helped him mix spices, she doesn’t know the exact sauce recipe.

“It’s in a lockbox. He’s got it in his head,” she said.

Van der Wyngaerde said his daughter knows it, but no one else does. That’s because the sauce is what sets his product apart from other barbecue. He mixes up about 250 gallons each week.

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Bill Van der Wyngaerde, owner of Lil Porgy's Bar-B-Q, and his wife, Sandee, work the cash register Tuesday, June 25, 2019, at the Urbana location, which he is closing at the end of the month.

Family affair

Kymberlee Enfield plans to move to the area soon and continue training with her father so she can eventually take over Li’l Porgy’s. Stepdaughter Summer Burnett has a full-time job but works most weekends helping cater events or plugging any other hole that needs to be plugged. The same holds true for Sandee.

Twelve years younger than her spouse, Sandee has no desire for him to fully retire. She’s retired from the postal service.

“I’ve been after him for several years to just cut back a little. If he didn’t have something to do, he’d have a heart attack and die or he would frequent his watering hole a little more,” she said with a laugh.

But she said closing the Urbana store was a difficult decision for him.

“He does this with a heavy heart. This was his baby,” she said.

The couple have a condominium in Bradenton, Fla., where Bill spends just a few days a year.

Light on hobbies because of his work ethic, he has one nonwork passion: the Atlanta Braves. Earlier this year, he planned his vacation around their spring training in Florida.

"I love baseball. I saw eight games in 13 days," he said. "I felt pretty good about that."

Van der Wyngaerde said it’s been bittersweet hearing stories from his loyal customers in Urbana, to whom he’s extremely grateful. Many have grieved him about his choice to cut back.

“One lady said she used to work in Urbana. She read where I was closing and said, ‘I came over for one last meal in Urbana.’ I thought, ‘My God, I must be doing something right.’”

Reporter

Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).