Ken Kirkpatrick and Chip Dixon are partners in Duval BBQ II Ltd., a corporation that is opening its newest Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q restaurant today on Atlantic Boulevard near Girvin Road.
Kirkpatrick’s father, John, a friend of founder Sonny Tillman, built the fifth Sonny’s in 1977 in Ocala, and came up with the first franchise agreement, which was one page.
“It was a lot simpler back then. That agreement has since been dwarfed by the hundreds of pages of the current document. My dad was involved in building a number of stores in Jacksonville,” said Kirkpatrick, adding he has acquired 10 other Sonny’s stores in Florida.
“A year ago, Bobby Tillman, Sonny’s brother, was interested in selling his three Jacksonville stores, and we saw it as an opportunity to grow and expand into this market. I think it is an exciting market,” said Dixon.
“What’s exciting is that there hasn’t been a new store in the Jacksonville area in 15 years, and there has been a lot of growth since then,” said Kirkpatrick.
Kirkpatrick and Dixon are putting the finishing touches on the new store. They have been commuting from Ocala since construction started in June. “It can get stressful,” said Kirkpatrick. “How much golf we get to play is truly a barometer for how controlled our lives are at the moment. We aren’t playing a lot of golf at the moment.”
The partners have agreed to build three more stores locally over the next five years. “We’re looking at Mandarin, the Baymeadows area, possibly another Orange Park location, Middleburg, Fleming Island,” said Kirkpatrick. “But we’re taking it one store at a time.”
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
Kirkpatrick’s father, John Kirkpatrick, was running several Sonny’s restaurants when Dixon started working for him. “I started working with him right after college and I got hooked on the restaurant business,” said Dixon.
Kirkpatrick worked for Proctor and Gamble for seven years after graduating from University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He bought a company called Heritage Management and became involved in Sonny’s when his brother, who owned several stores, passed away three years ago. “Right now, I divide my time between Sonny’s and Heritage Management,” said Kirkpatrick.
WHAT THEY DO
Dixon handles operational issues, while Kirkpatrick oversees administration, including site selection and development and financing.
Sonny’s is the largest barbecue chain in the nation, based on sales and market share. There are over 150 restaurants in nine Southeastern states.
“I think we’re special because of the value we offer, the quality of our food and the speed of service,” said Dixon. “We’ve found our niche in the market. It’s good to be a part of something you’re proud of.”
“We’re a Christian-based family business. We try to run the operation treating people the same way we’d like to be treated,” said Kirkpatrick.
A NEW LOOK
Many of the restaurants are being remodeled.
BEST PART OF YOUR JOB?
Said Dixon: “I love working with people and I’m proud of Sonny’s. We influence a lot of people’s lives. It is rewarding to provide others with a place they can work and know they can be cared about. Sonny’s is getting pretty big, but we consider it a family business still.”
“We try to have a positive impact on the community,” added Kirkpatrick.
WHAT IS MOST CHALLENGING ABOUT YOUR JOB?
“It’s always a challenge to stay on top of laws and regulations,” said Kirkpatrick.
Added Dixon: “There is good competition out there, but I think we challenge ourselves. We don’t wait for someone else to challenge us.”
A PART OF THE COMMUNITY
“We try to be like local people,” said Dixon. “We want to be very involved in every community. We put a lot of energy into local projects.”
Kirkpatrick has been married to Suzanne for 12 years and has three children, Laura, 4, Preston, 7, and Austin, 9. Dixon has three children with Tami, his wife of 20 years. They have a daughter Reagan, 19, and two sons Tray, 16, and Kyle, 15.
OTHER THAN BARBECUE
“We love to play golf, but we’ve been cured of that lately,” said Kirkpatrick. “I’m passionate about go-cart racing, because my kids are really into it.”
“We’re fortunate to have very close families,” said Dixon. “We are involved in our own churches and the youth groups there.”
— by Bailey White