Atlanta Orders In: Customers feel the love for Socks’ Love Barbecue in Cumming

The Sticky Rib Sandwich with spicy slaw is the Tuesday special at Socks’ Love Barbecue. 
CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Caption
The Sticky Rib Sandwich with spicy slaw is the Tuesday special at Socks’ Love Barbecue. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Love always has been at the center of Steven Hartsock’s barbecue career, even though, at times, it’s been known to cause a few chuckles.

It started at his wedding 10 years ago. An amateur meat smoker who worked in the construction industry, Hartsock came up with a spice rub to give to guests. Riffing on a family nickname, he called it Socks’ Love Rub.

By the next year, the Columbus native had turned the seasoning into a commercial brand. Having perfected his pulled pork and Texas-style brisket, it wasn’t long before he landed his first professional catering gig, cooking at a wedding reception on a smoker borrowed from Jonathan Fox, co-owner of Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q.

Socks’ Love Barbecue’s OMG Mac and Cheese is a showstopper. 
CONTRIBUTED BY BRIAN DUFFY
Caption
Socks’ Love Barbecue’s OMG Mac and Cheese is a showstopper. CONTRIBUTED BY BRIAN DUFFY

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

When he started a catering company in Cumming three years ago, he chose a more literal name, the Catering Kitchen, which later became BBQ at the Catering Kitchen for weekday lunches. “I kind of ran from the Socks’ Love thing,” said Hartsock, 41. “When we were a rub company, I had to constantly explain to people.”

However, BBQ at the Catering Kitchen was long, cumbersome and too generic a name to register with the public. So, in March, 2019, he relaunched as Socks’ Love Barbecue. “I finally embraced the idea, and the fact that it’s catchy,” Hartsock said. “It’s a conversation piece. I own the trademark. ‘Let’s just be Socks’ Love Barbecue, and let’s move on.' And we did.”

This year, right before the pandemic sideswiped his catering business, Insider.com published a list of Yelp’s best barbecue joints by state, and named Socks’ Love as Georgia’s best. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution picked up the story. “Within two days, the business completely changed,” Hartsock said. “Sales increased tremendously.”

On March 17, the lunch spot suspended dine-in service in response to COVID-19, switching to takeout only.

Then, came another publicity bombshell: In June, Socks’ Love won the AJC’s Best of Atlanta reader poll, beating out Heirloom Market, Fox Bros. and other spots that Hartsock cites as inspiration.

Around that time, I decided I best scoot up Ga. 400 to see what the fuss was about.

ExploreMore Atlanta Orders In
Socks’ Love Barbecue specializes in smoked meats and comforting sides. 
CONTRIBUTED BY TRAVIS FISH
Caption
Socks’ Love Barbecue specializes in smoked meats and comforting sides. CONTRIBUTED BY TRAVIS FISH

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Just before noon, Tuesday, I pulled into the parking lot and called in my order. Staffer David May asked if I wanted him to come outside and run my credit card, or if I was OK with reading him the info. I gave him my deets, picked a spot at a picnic table on the edge of the property, and waited for my food.

Tucking into the daily special — the Chopped Sticky Rib Sandwich, with spicy slaw — I felt the love. I tore open a pack of Fritos, and scattered them on a bowl of intensely spicy brisket chili to make a Frito pie. I spooned it in; I couldn’t stop.

As for the unadorned hickory-smoked barbecue, the pulled pork was tender, smoky and seriously flavorful. The brisket boasted a gorgeous salt-and-pepper bark, and an all-important streak of fat. The OMG Mac and Cheese lived up to its name; the tangy-sweet slaw was just right, a nice foil to the unctuous meats.

Hartsock does it his way. He doesn’t make Brunswick stew, because he never cared for it. Potato salad is off the table. Ribs are reserved for Fridays and Saturdays only.

And, the “love” is more than a gimmick. Even after the catering bust cost Hartsock 65 percent of his total business, he offered free food to anyone who showed up in need — “no questions asked.” He’s tried to instill in his three children how lucky they are to have a home, and plenty to eat.

Also, when Hartsock heard that a nearby restaurant, Lake Burrito, was on the verge of sinking, he posted a video on Facebook, urging the community to support the tiny mom-and-pop. He was the first to step up, donating a day’s worth of profits to the restaurant.

“We were able to meet them for the first time, and give them a very nice check,” he said.

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Send your suggestions to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

SOCKS’ LOVE BARBECUE

Menu: smoked meats and sides; daily specials

Alcohol: no

What I ordered: Sticky Rib Sandwich; two-meat plate, with pulled pork and brisket; all the sides: collards, cream corn, brisket chili, Frito pie, mac and cheese, coleslaw, cowboy beans. All were delicious, though I’d skip the beans next time. Big thumbs up to the chili and the Frito pie!

Service options: takeout only; call ahead or order at the counter; no delivery

Safety protocols: only a few customers are allowed inside at a time; staff and kitchen crew wear masks and gloves

Address, phone: 1050 Buford Highway, Cumming; 470-302-838

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays

Website: sockslovebrands.com