Billy Sims says more people recognize him these days for his restaurants than for being a Heisman Trophy winner, which proves he’s more than just the name behind the Billy Sims BBQ chain.
“I get around to a lot of the stores, and I’ve done a lot of TV commercials,” Sims says. “People come up to me all the time and say, ‘I’ve tried your barbecue.’ That’s OK, because we want to know about their experiences.”
Sims was a running back for the University of Oklahoma and was the recipient of college football’s Heisman Trophy for best player in 1978. He played for the Detroit Lions from 1980 until he retired from professional football in 1985.
Billy Sims BBQ cofounder Jeff Jackson owned a sports memorabilia store and met Sims at an autograph-signing event in 1999. Jackson says Sims had such a great personality and was so genuine when dealing with the public, he knew right away he wanted to go into business with him. But it took a while to convince Sims.
“It was [Jackson’s] idea to start a barbecue place,” Sims says. “I was reluctant because I didn’t want to put my name on something unless I was sure it would be good. Ten years and 44 stores later, I can’t believe the success.”
Jackson attributes the success to Sims being a true partner in the business.
“Billy is not just a name and face. … He goes far beyond that,” Jackson says. “He’s actively involved. He cares about how all the franchisees are serving the food. I let him know what’s going on, from problems to successes.”
The fast-casual barbecue chain started small, as a 1,000-square-foot single location in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Jackson and Sims grew the brand to six units by 2009. At that point, Sims and Jackson decided to start franchising the restaurants.
Billy Sims BBQ
Cofounders: Jeff Jackson and Billy Sims
HQ: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Year Started: 2004
Annual Sales: Undisclosed
Total Units: 44
Franchise Units: 42
The menu includes ribs, brisket, pulled pork, chicken, turkey, hot sausage links, and smoked bologna. The meats are smoked daily over pecan wood in every restaurant. Side options include baked potatoes smoked in the smoker, potato salad, freshly smoked corn on the cob, coleslaw, baked beans, green beans with bacon, and entrée-size salads with fresh vegetables.
Billy Sims BBQ restaurants have been located in places where the football standout’s name is well known, including the greater Tulsa and Detroit areas. But with plans in the works to grow the chain by 10–20 stores a year going forward, Billy Sims BBQ will be entering markets less familiar with the football player.
“When I’m asked if we can be successful outside of Detroit or Oklahoma, my rebuttal is, ‘Who is Tim Horton? Who is Famous Dave? Who is Bob Evans?’” Jackson says. “At some point it becomes all about the food. The bottom line is that the food’s got to be good. Then, when people come in for the food, they can learn from what’s hanging on the walls who Billy Sims is.”
Sims’ legend also plays out on the menu. The most popular sandwich is the Heisman, which features pulled pork or beef brisket with a slice of bologna and a hot link on a bun. The Triple 20, named for the fact that Sims wore the number 20 in high school, college, and in the NFL, is a pulled pork sandwich topped with Billy’s Secret Sauce, coleslaw, and Provolone cheese.
While the sandwiches and combo plates are popular, Jackson says, Billy Sims BBQ is best known for its ribs. Rib dinners come in three sizes: the Running Back 4-rib size, the Half Back half-rack size, and the Full Back, which includes a full rack of ribs.
“There is an art to the barbecue,” Jackson says. “We don’t just throw meat on a smoker for 12 hours. We look, taste, touch, and adjust the temperature to make sure it’s just right.”
Franchisees are taught how to barbecue and serve meat through a month-long training program at a corporate store in Tulsa.
“Barbecue is a sensitive food,” Jackson says. “Chopped brisket, for example, will dry out if it is left on the counter too long. You have to be aware and very caring, and I think we teach that very well.”
The footprint of a typical Billy Sims BBQ location is between 1,800 and 2,000 square feet. “It’s kind of a show,” Jackson says. “The order is prepped in front of the customer. What they’re eating today, in the case of the brisket or pulled pork, was cooked last night in the smoker.”
Billy Sims BBQ also has locations inside the football stadiums where Sims’ former teams play: Ford Field in Detroit and Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma. When Sims attends games at these stadiums, he personally greets the fans—whether they’re football fans, barbecue fans, or both. “To us, the stadium locations are a promotional tool,” Jackson says. “We’re building the brand in the stadiums. And Billy loves it.”