Sonny's Barbecue began as a local family restaurant in Gainesville, Florida, in 1968. Owned and operated by Floyd "Sonny" Tillman and his wife, Lucille, the restaurant smoked tender meat over oak wood for 12 hours to create the real Southern-style barbecue that Sonny's is known for today. Floridians loved Sonny's slow-cooked barbecue, and in 1977 the business started to expand.
John Kirkpatrick became the first Sonny's franchise owner when he opened the second Sonny's location in Ocala, Florida. By 1981, the restaurant operated in 25 different locations, and the 50th Sonny's Barbecue opened three years later in 1984. The Tillmans sold the successful barbecue chain to Bob Yarmuth in 1991. Yarmuth purchased his first Sonny's franchise in 1981, and he is the company's Chief Executive Officer, as of 2015.
Sonny's menu of slow-cooked pulled pork barbecue, beef briskets and Southern side items expanded to include baby back ribs in 1993, and the 100th Sonny's location opened in 1998. As of 2015, there are 122 Sonny's Barbecue restaurants in nine states, including North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Louisiana. The menu features traditional items such as pulled pork sandwiches and Saint Louis-style ribs, as well as steak burgers, fried shrimp and fresh salads.