Longtime patrons remember Bessinger

02/25/2014 9:14 PM

03/12/2015 4:32 PM

Nancy Jackson, 60, of Columbia remembers her first date at Maurice’s Piggie Park in Cayce many years ago.

Back then, the car hops would bring Big Joe baskets dripping with Maurice’s signature Southern Gold sauce with sides of coleslaw, fries and sweet tea. Under a large smiling pig sign and mustard-yellow awnings, the smell of Maurice’s barbecue enticed traveler’s nostrils and a taste of it filled their stomachs.

Now the car hops have been replaced with a drive-through window, and the franchise owner, Maurice Bessinger, has passed away. Bessinger was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease two years ago and died Saturday.

“I remember parking outside and having the girls serve me,” Jackson said. “I usually get the Big Joe or Little Joe basket. I know he has been in a lot of trouble, but I have been eating his food since I was very young.”

Maurice Bessinger created a barbecue empire surrounding his signature sauce and meat. However, as the mustard-based sauce, Southern Gold, gained popularity around the South, Bessinger found himself pitted in growing controversy.

In 2000, people began boycotting his eateries after The State newspaper disclosed that Bessinger was distributing pro-slavery tracts at his Maurice’s Gourmet Barbecue headquarters in West Columbia. He also flew Confederate flags outside his restaurants for many years. However, the last two flags came down last year as the family distanced itself from politics. Bessinger had not been involved in running the restaurant for the better part of a decade, the family has said.

On Monday, customer Larry Lane sat down to his pulled pork barbeque sandwich in Maurice’s Piggie Park, which closely resembles a pig pen you would have found on a Southern farm.

“In support of Maurice today, I came out and ate his food,” said Lane, who has been eating at the restaurant since he moved to Columbia from Pennsylvania in 1972 as a public relations specialist in the Army. “I support his food, not his views. He wore his flag for everyone to see. It’s hard to defend those ideas, but I have always liked the pulled pork, and the hash is awesome.”

Maurice Bessinger was remembered Monday by his employees, some of which are his family members, as a hard worker who never took a day off for vacation.

“He was hardworking and working all the time,” said Paul Bessinger Jr., Bessinger’s grandson and manager of the Piggie Park in Irmo. “He would visit every location and interact with guests and employees, making sure everyone was enjoying their time.”

Cahill is a student in the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism.

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