SONNY'S BARBECUE   √√1/2 > √√√√



ED:  While we strive to give every location a good rating and reality says it only takes one day in the business to ruin things.  It seems thats the day I drop in with my partner.   

It can be the day someone didn’t show up, the manager lost at the poker game last night, bad paycheck moods, or the truck from Sysco, Palmetto or Kissimmee location or GFS  from Plant City broke down, the head waitress or front end leader gal is in a bad mood, the cook has a severe cough and cold, the power went off and all the meat in the chiller is bad and we’ll see if we can get it on the grill and precook everything and so forth. This is all part of the business.

A good facility has backups for almost every position and spends a lot of time cross training the help to take over in the event of a situation.  Off and on over twenty some years this chain has experienced just about everything I mentioned.  Even letters to the head honcho received no answers. I even offered to check their stores if they reimbursed me as a hidden shopper... no reply...

Good NEWS:   Like water it can run hot or cold, last trip in 8-22-2018 It ran HOT!  
Voila!  Congratulations!  Mazel Tov! Qué Buenas Noticias !

This chain and this store in particular is living proof that a good manager can turn an establishment around. 

It also proved to me that a good manager can make a difference in a chain location when he puts the customer first and that store excels above the others, thus they all should rise to the chains level and raise the bar.

Don’t get me wrong some Sonny’s owners run a good, clean, comfort food, fun place to eat with personable staffs in the locations we visited and we visited a lot. But it basically has one problem that I see which I will get too.

Sonny’s was not my first choice locally for barbecue.  We drove a good distance when we wanted ribs.  We went to, and no joke here  “BIG TIMS Barbecue” on the south side of St. Petersburg Florida.  A landmark at the time for ribs in the Tampa Bay area till the owner got caught by the local and state boys for dealing in drugs..  Sonny’s does not make ribs and barbecue in the way traditionalist wet and dry rub aficionados like myself appreciate it.  They use the "open pit” fire style. More fire, less slow cooked more smoke for flavor

But I like to eat, I like to write about it and their location was convenient to my home.  I am both a finesse and comfort food eater.  A rib lover, Pig, Cow, Bison, Gnu, Elk, who cares.  Any kind of food with a handle built in has got to be good.  It the way nature intended it to be.  Ribs and their preparation are very much a culinary science, extremely diversified and regionally held sacred by fellow rib lovers. 

I'm not fussy, I just don't prefer their style, but when hungry, I can live with it. I have enjoyed good ribs, mark that great ribs and barbecue in places from Jackson Hole Wyoming, home to Bubba's, my favorite, wet and rubbed ribs in Memphis where we ate for three days barbecue. And don't leave out Texas Beef Ribs and Kansas City Dry Rub… at many nationally known restaurants featured on TV.

*  To be fair we visited five Sonny’s locations three times each over a period of time.

*  To the eye each store was clean, nice staff, quick seating, timely service, clean bathrooms and service area. No dirty or darkened ceilings, condiments on the table filled and serviceable, tables wiped clean no drippings. We saw the employees, managers helping when busy quickly resetting tables and checking the area.

*  They offer RIBS several ways in addition to many other items on the menu. Ribs were my selection for testing. We use sweet and smokey all you can eat for consistency.

Sweet & Smokey Ribs   (Our test preference) √√√Our Sweet & Smokey Ribs are basted twice in Sonny’s famous  (?)Sweet Bar-B-Q Sauce and slow-smoked over a real hardwood fire. ( I didn’t know they had a fake hardwood fire)

Classic Dry Rub Ribs √ -  This is Sonny’s version of this traditional Bar-B-Q favorite.

Baby Back Ribs √ -   A full slab marinated and smoked ’til they’re sweet and tender sometimes.


Surprise, surprise, last night we hit the Sonny’s BBQ on Seminole Blvd, and the experience moved up a few notches and so did the bill.  All you can Sonny’s Sweet and Smokey Memphis Ribs is now 18.95, up from 16.00.

The interior looked new and fresh, unique condiment trays, new booths and this time I had the sweet and smokey ribs, all you can eat and they were perfect.I made it thru two rounds and my partner had a smaller plate of two kinds of meat ribs and pulled pork, with a few sides, and thinner garlic bread, I think the bread was shrunk it was still filling.

Service was fast and attentive, pleasant compared to th past when service was good but the food had no consistency.Obviously they made some updates and changes... I am finding getting there earlier than the 6:30=7:30 rush has it's advantages. In the last three places we went earlier...the food was actually better and fresher that getting there when it's mobbed.Pleasant visit and bumped to a four since chains I don’t give fives to. 

They did score well on the health department inspections. I suspect they either called in an expert  ( someone from another state with a briefcase and laptop) or read what people really think, the decor improved, the food improved, even the haphazard condiment setup improved... downside,  prices went up, tariffs, politics caused that, recalls on essentials, and paying the help 

2016-2017 LARGO - 2250 Seminole Blvd. Largo, FL 33778 √√ -- √√√


Again their style is not quite any of the above. On some days the food at this location was neither wet nor dry, it was burnt, commercial and overcooked, maybe sat under the lights too long.  I have been a customer there for years.  Open fire caramelized is how I would describe it. 

Even smothered in sauce it was terrible. We don’t complain, we just report. It’s my policy, but as a consumer after three trips, (and we pay our own way)  the one time the manager came over and my answer was, “The sweet and smoky ribs tasted like a feral pig caught running through a brush fire, ultimately dying en-route after being burnt to death". 

To be fair, as a food, ribs are like opinions and just like politics, there are plenty of opinions. Sonny's preaches his slow fire cooked “Florida” ribs over a open fire.  I like my ribs hot, tender, and flavorful, and my beer cold.  Hot and cold: Unfortunately thats how this place runs.  Good one week, bad the next, you never know what you will get.  

So, as it is my policy to try a place three times before I pass judgement, I went back, tried it again, and the food was average good, not Bubba but not bad enough to throw the plate on the floor.  A new manager from one of the other stores was in charge and he did fine. He seemed to be more in the picture, out amongst the customers than in the office and the food and service has gotten better. The ribs tasted fresh and not laying around.  He had an eye on what was going out of the kitchen.

Alas, a few weeks later he was gone, back up at his old store and things went back to normal in this location.  It’s the ribs, the place is kept clean and has a friendly nice staff.  It’s the food that turned me off.  Simple enough to fix. The sides, corn, greens, fries, potatoes were generous in portion and fairly nicely done.  Don’t expect “ ala dente” when greens have been in the water for a while.  I call it “ ala mush”.

Their salad bars were well kept, everything fresh looking and checked and I only noted actually on two occasions folks were going to the bar and sampling the food at the bar with their plates.  Literally eating through the bar.  Florida I believe requires a fresh plate for each trip to a salad bar. One woman was just going down the bins sample one at a time. I told the manager, but she did nothing.

The answer is partially obvious, no one watching the chicken coop.  I under stand it is a seasonal thing. When the tourists are here, they get busy and the food moves quick, thus hopefully nothing burnt or dried out. As soon as things got quiet, the ribs that go out are the last part of the pig that got caught and they found it.  I thought I would never say this but "busy is better" and a lot fresher too.

This is a management problem and revolves around whether the product has sat for too long and should like some hamburger joints, throw it in the three G's, the gut, let the help eat it, the garbage, or the grinder and stick it in the Chili. 

Sometimes I felt I was getting yesterdays ribs. A waitress I befriended who left them told me that was possible. Another wouldn’t say anything, just grinned and laughed….I did not want to hear that, her eyes told me the whole story.  

Most folks from Alabama, Mississippi, the Carolinas think these things qualify as pork meat, but not true ribs. Some aficionados’ wouldn’t feed on these ribs. I know I met them at other places like Chilies eating Chili's ribs and Chillis are pure commercial ribs, not a taste of Memphis either. So I questioned them and it was more about 2 for one drinks than the ribs…. So where do you get real ribs… the quest continues in Tampa Bay.

Avoid the “all you can eat on ribs”.  It's hit or miss on the reorder.  The last three times the re-orders were barely edible.  End cuts burnt and tougher than nails.  Again, I do not complain while in any venue until the third visit.  I suck it up and hit the keys. They do a fairly good job on chicken, if you like a red colored chicken, not me. It's done, but the fire adds what we call in roasting,  "the red burn ring" except the whole chicken piece turns red.  Tastes OK but not appealing to me. I like the charred burnt looking Chicken with taste and sauce.

The pork both pulled and sliced is usually quite nice, they give extra nice size portions of garlic toast, tatters, fries and the usual beans, green beans and slaw. All of which are cheaper than meat.  Beverages come in huge glasses and if you are a tea drinker ask for half sweet and half unsweetened or no sugar at all. 

The "Southern Sweet Tea" is a prelude to diabetic coma and way too sweet for me. Tell the girl to make it half and half or put your own sugar in. They now do serve Beer and Booze, and now a mini-sports bar at this location.  

Restaurants must maintain a cost factor which does not exceed 65%. That’s the cost of labor & food per every dollar of sales. Food cost should not exceed 27- 28%.  

Some restaurants do not really get great deals on meat unless they are like some chains and buy futures. Futures are breaks on the food they purchase with a locked in price for the year.  Baby backs at Sam’s might cost the same uncooked as from supplier like SYSCO. In a taste shot a rack from Sams was better cooked than a rack from Sonny’s.

Baby back ribs are the ribs closest to the spine while spare ribs are the rib section closest to the breast bone.  Baby back ribs are less meaty, less fatty and tenderer than spareribs.  Baby backs come with the meaty “eye” removed.  A St. Louis cut is an entire slab of spareribs with the sternum and cartilage trimmed away.    

Spare ribs and baby back ribs are best cooked low and slow, be it a dry or wet heat method.  They can be coated with a dry rub and slow cooked in the oven or even a grill.  For the latter they are seared first and then cooked on the rack above the grill at a lower temperature with the lid closed. 

Or they can be contained within foil or a cooking vessel with liquid and braised.  And of course they are the quintessential barbeque food.  Depending on the school of thought barbeque will involve a sauce and/or a dry rub, but definitely long slow cooking with smoke flavoring. 

Back Ribs (a.k.a. loin ribs, baby back ribs, or Canadian back ribs) – Are taken from the top of the rib cage between the spine and the spareribs, below the loin muscle. This cut has meat between and on top of the bones, and the ribs are short and curved. The rack is shorter at one end, due to the natural tapering of a pig’s rib cage. A rack of back ribs contains a minimum of eight ribs (some may be trimmed if damaged), but can include up to 13 ribs, depending on how it has been prepared by the butcher. A typical commercial rack is 10 to 13 bones. If there are fewer than 10 bones, butchers call them “cheater racks.

Twice the baby-backs at Sonny’s were not up to par with others, they not meaty, tough, and small even for a full rack. I don’t order them anymore.

Wings were very inexpensive at the bar as a special. They cost more at the table.  But at the bar you are not getting cheap booze or beer and wings with salt that make people thirsty.  That makes the difference up.

The wings I got as an appetizer were a disaster.  What I termed Kindergarden wings, 10 for 8.99.  Outrageous ! These smalls go for a dollar a pound. They were small, hardly any meat, overcooked, crisped drenched in sauce.  Actually they didn't seem to be anything close to the wings from Hooters or Ker's Wing house. These were zeros in size. Like from the pigeon shoot they had in Manatee County that got PETA going.

Think all wings are created equal, you don’t know wings.  I went and researched wings. WEIKU, features HALAL, a global food importer, global since chicken wings may be imported from Poland, Germany, Cameroon, China, South Africa, and Malaysia in portions escalating into metric tonnage.  You might say most of these commercial wings already had their frequent flyer miles.

Chickens grow anywhere and China is everywhere. They do a big job raising them over ponds which are covered with mesh under which which are shrimp.  Chickens help feed the shrimp.  You figure it out.  It is so chicken processing cost effective US chickens are sent to China and then shipped back to the US in parts packaged and sold in the stores. I almost had a stroke when I heard that and it came from the Feds.

They looked nothing like the wings in the picture shown here.  This is how they are served mid America. Nice size, plump and not overcooked.  For more info on the place and origin of wings, go here.  It’s self explanatory. Wings are a commodity.

SONNY'S     √√1/2 or less    NEEDS HELP
2551 N Dale Mabry Hwy, Tampa -   March, 2011
We stopped after making the drop at the Tampa Post Office and went into Sonny's on Dale Mabry. I ordered ribs and selected the Kansas dry rub. I have been in Kansas and ate at two of the best places for ribs there. 

This concoction the waitress brought me was Aqua Regia Dry Rub with a sprinkle of rib.  I make my own dry rub for ribs and chops.  Listen dry rub is not rocket science, paprika, onion and garlic salt, or powder, brown sugar, white sugar, celery salt, chili powder, ground black pepper, cayenne pepper, and dry mustard mix in a bowl and rub.

I was on fire and I am a Chili lover, I write about heat and Chiles and this was excessive.  After using the spoon to scrape most of the powder off, it was still dry and burning hot even though I drowned it in their sweet sauce.  Enough, I ate the other stuff, the sweet potato and corn and seeeeeyaaaaaa!  

It took Tum's and an Alka-Seltzer to put the fire out later that night.  My gal tried one bite and dumped it in a napkin.  That was our last adventure there.  This is all about management oversight and training. There are five Sonny's in Tampa and rumor has it they were just bought out by a corporation (Dale Earnhardt's name was mentioned as a partner, we are checking on it.) 

On two other occasions eating solo, and once with guest, we were equally not impressed. Poor to average.

Tampa, FL - 8106 W.Hillsborough Avenue, Tampa, FL 33615,  MAY 2013

After a long day at the hospital we were heading home and had to take a different route, we were hungry and saw ample parking at this location on busy Hillsboro and thats strange on a Saturday night, so we figured we beat the crowd.

This SONNY'S was totally different, the manager was off and the assistant or designated manager for the evening was Ms. Vivian Rivera.  What a difference eight miles from my house made. What a great employee.  The food was hot, cooked great and delicious. I am a creature of habit and order the “usual” to compare.   

Even my guest was impressed.  Our server took serious interest in making sure things were right and this is for some one who went through recent hospitalization and doesn’t quite have her taste buds back yet.  We will (when) in the area go back two more times but the initial experience was excellent for both of us.

People can make or break a company, if you haven’t lost her she needs a managers job! I would vouch for her and If I were opening a new place hire her on the spot.

SONNY’S    √√√√  Best of the locations - Consistent!

PINELLAS PARK - 4385 Park Blvd.  Pinellas Park, FL 33781

One of the nicer locations, furbished and clean, with a great attitude, they were really friendly from the greeter to our nice personable knowledgeable server and we were off with the usual order. 

We order the same thing because thats how you compare portion, quality, presentation, and freshness both from a location and consistency standpoint in a franchise. Voila! Great food!

In total we ate there three times, same time and night of the week, same waiter, we actually asked for him the second and third trip in and his name is MIKE and he’s good at what he does.  Last visit he was training a new recruit. Good move. There recruit turned out fine.

Service with a smile and the food came quickly.  The ribs, greens and a sweet potato, cornbread and water. since I’m not allowed Coke, were excellent. Not Memphis, but palatable and fresh. The ribs were center cut, meaty not overdone and a little sizzling sweet sauce and I (we) were off and running. My guest again was recently hospitalized for a long stay and with her taste buds coming back she went ravenous. Thats how I know it was good.

We don’t go back to the Largo Store if we can help it, we avoid it and prefer to drive five miles further to get better food. We went to this location about seven times and CONSISTENT !  This time Skyler took care of us and the entire crew seems to be on the same page.  Managers Debbie and Rod do a good job……..

Update: All well that ends well and we went back in 2018 and things were not the same.... lose the good people and things go south.


TAMPA, Florida—Founded right here in Florida back in 1968, Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Qis known for its southern hospitality and slow-smoked taste.  

What wasn't so good? The April 9, 2014 inspection report for the Sonny's on Adamo Drive near Brandon. A state health inspector ordered an emergency closure after documenting 28 violations, including an employee spotted touching dirty items then not properly washing hands; improper temperature on the macaroni and cheese; three live roaches found on a glue trap near the drive-thru window; and rodent activity. 

Over 275 rodent droppings were found throughout the kitchen, in the dry storage room, behind the bar area, near the dish washing machine, in the employee bathroom, and seven on the cutting board!

The inspector also ordered a stop sale on a pound of sugar found with chew marks on the bag.  Customers who tried to stop in for lunch a week earlier say they were turned away, unaware of the emergency closure.  "We came here last week and we seen a whole bunch of cars blocked," said Quandt. "We wondered why. I didn't know that."

Another violation we found on Sonny's inspection report was the accumulation of a "black or green mold like substance" inside the ice machine. We reviewed the entire inspection history for the Adamo Drive Sonny's location dating back to 2012 and found that same violation on almost every single report.  "Why hasn't it been cleaned up earlier?" asked Dot Kriney. "That would bother me."  With that question in mind, 10 News stopped in hoping to see just how cleaned up the kitchen really was.  When we asked for permission to take a look in the kitchen, we were told that would not be possible. "No. We can't do that," said the restaurant manager.

I think it boils down to demographics, glowing reports by non-experienced eaters who write reviews, but know little of the back end or what they are talking about and honest management not driven by bottom lines but conscience.   According to the Urban Spoon, in Largo people who like Sonny's most mentioned the wings and the bar.  I suppose after a few shots anything tastes good. It’s affordable, and with the right stuff your order will be semi filling and if you think these are good wings, you should work in the industry.

I usually do not read other peoples comments since they have no restaurant experience or knowledge of the techniques, process, rules and regulations.  And they just might be on the north side of the weight scale so anything is obviously good.

My suggestion for the gastro-intelligensia, the pulled pork or sliced pork all you can eat with two sides and beverage. In North Tampa slightly more upscale there is more competition and the store there was not rated well at all.   BUT…they have changed hands or so the rumor says…. and maybe Dale Earnhardt supposedly one of the new investor group will clean up the mess.  Also look at the other tables as you are seated and see how the ribs are coming out.  Another clue is go earlier, the foods fresher.

Sonny's does the catering for the annual Strawberry Festival Media Event affair held in Plant City usually around March a day or so before the Festival. The food served fresh at this affair was EXCELLENT, top drawer and the same ribs you could choke on at my location were perfect.  

Like I have stated before, the management makes the difference. Believe it!  Because/  maybe / guessing the bigger boss is there.  Of course at the media event there were critics there and thats a good incentive to do it right.  Several locations closed recently but many of their locations are sound and Ok. They have to revamp the rogue stores.

Bottom line to Quote Forrest Gump.   “Life is like a box of chocolates you'll never know what you will get”. 
Bottom line to Quote Al Jacobson.      “ Don’t blame the pig, he was just an innocent bystander”.

copyright 2019