Steve Hartsock watched Friday as his business made a metaphorical transformation.
On Friday, down went the sign Hartsock put up almost two years ago when he started his barbecue catering business as The Catering Kitchen at 1050 Buford Highway. Before customers arrived at 11 a.m. for lunch, they were welcomed with a new sign featuring an old name to take Hartsock’s business into the foreseeable future as Socks’ Love Barbecue.
Just like that, the business went from catering with a restaurant on the side to a restaurant that caters on the side.
The change is another marker on Hartsock’s late-blooming career in the food industry, and a signal that his brand of “wood-fired, honest barbecue and creative comfort sides” has gained traction in Forsyth County.
“We didn’t try to do it,” Hartsock said. “We just happened into it.”
Indeed, there was little in Hartsock’s background that suggested a future in barbecue. The longtime Forsyth County resident instead had a demanding career in construction with early mornings and late nights. Cooking was a necessity then for Hartsock, not a luxury.
Hartsock got married to his wife, Kim, a partner in an accounting firm in Sandy Springs, in 2010, and started to slow things down. He changed jobs, which afforded him more time to cook on nights and weekends. Hartsock suddenly found himself thinking about cooking throughout the day.
Eventually, he felt inspired to create his own seasoning for meats. Hartsock enjoyed experimenting with the recipe. For their wedding day, Kim and Steve gave out the seasoning in tin cans to guests. They called it Socks’ Love Rub.
The seasoning received favorable reviews, so Hartsock decided to put it in a commercial bottle and sell it around the area and online. Later, he added sauces.
That was the life, Hartsock thought.
“I thought I would just have a seasoning company and it would be successful and I could live happily ever after,” Hartsock said.
Then a friend asked Hartsock to cater a wedding rehearsal dinner for 100 people. Hartsock accepted. He borrowed the personal smoker of Justin and Jonathan Fox, the identical twin brothers who run the renowned Fox Bros. BBQ in Atlanta, and cooked up a menu of pulled pork, chicken, mac and cheese, green beans with pork tenderloin pinwheels.
After serving the guests, Hartsock remembers standing to the side, with Kim, and listening to the hum of people enjoying his food.
“It was quiet, but it was noisy, and what we realized was the noise was coming from the people not talking but eating,” Hartsock said.
Catering took off from there, enough that in 2015, Hartsock quit his full-time job. He found the small commercial suite he currently rents and opened a kitchen.
There was space on the exterior of the building for a sign, so Hartsock figured he should use it. He charged his branding agency that had developed the Socks’ Love identity to come up with a name. They came up with The Catering Kitchen. Up went the sign.
All was well until Hartsock got another idea about seven months ago: if they opened the kitchen and served lunch, would people come?
“We’ve really hit the ground running,” Hartsock said. “It’s been very successful.”
As the business’ restaurant component gained in popularity, Hartsock worried the name The Catering Kitchen was obsolete, perhaps even confusing to passersby.
Hartsock looked to his barbecue origins for the name change.
“I fought the Socks’ Love thing for a long time,” Hartsock said, “because I always got asked, ‘What does that mean?’ I never embraced the fact that it was an icebreaker and started a conversation. … But what I didn’t realize is all those years we had gained a lot of traction on that name. Regardless of the name, it became a brand.”
No wholesale changes coincide with the new name, Hartsock said. Socks’ Love Barbecue will serve the same menu of brisket, pulled pork, chicken and turkey with sides of mac and cheese, creamed corn, beans, green beans and coleslaw Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (or sold out.)
Hartsock will still fire up his smoker every night at 6 and keep it going until the morning for the next day’s spoils. He’ll still send the leftovers to No Longer Bound, a local men’s addiction ministry.
And he’ll still greet the newcomers and regulars who walk in to the restaurant the same.
“One of the most important things you can do for or with someone is share a meal with them or provide a meal for someone,” Hartsock said. “... I want people to come here and feel like they’re a part of what we’re doing, a part of our family.”