At the height of Saturday’s 2015 Woodward Dream Cruise, entrepreneur Billy Sims was working the Royal Oak dining room of Billy Sims BBQ like a bride greeting her wedding guests. Patiently posing for photos and providing autographs, he was already four hours into a long but friendly shift, with no fatigue or boredom in sight.
The former Detroit Lions’ running back clearly loves what he does, and so do his fans and the restaurant’s staff. Owned by Jim Turner of Leewood, Kansas, the busy corner food spot was a bustle of hungry car enthusiasts loving the side of celebrity being served up. Turner, who grew up in what was once East Detroit, also owns two more Sims locations — downriver and in Southfield. He has plans to open another eight within the next year in the metro-Detroit area.
Apparently, we love food in metro-Detroit, and if it’s this tasty, we are really on board!
Cruisers at this 20th annual event found refuge and plentiful dishes in the air-conditioning at 14 Mile and Woodward along with ample opportunity to ogle the varied vehicles passing by. A steady stream of customers visited for tender brisket, ribs and icy drinks, as well as all the trimmings. Many brought football memorabilia to be autographed and to capture Sims in his characteristic “Heisman Trophy” pose.
Sims earned that trophy during his junior year at the University of Oklahoma in 1978 when setting the nation’s record for rushing and scoring. The left-hander went on in 1980 to play five seasons with the Lions, contributing to three pro-bowls, and held numerous records with the team.
General Manager Dave Hedman, of Westland, reflected on the last two years, when the restaurant joined the cruising festivities and jumped into the car-enthusiasts’ fray.
“This has been a great experience,” he said. “The Cruise has given customers a chance to also try our food — and love it — and want to come back for more. We love that.”
Sims, 60, established his business and three locations 11 years ago when he partnered with Jeff Jackson and the concept of establishing winning BBQ franchises. He’d already made and lost a couple of fortunes, tried his hand at radio, grocery stores and assorted other businesses, and joined in the charter schools trend of the 1990s. He was seeking career answers following an unexpected early retirement from NFL football due to a catastrophic knee injury.
Although it was a bumpy road at first finding their niche, the restaurant’s unique and original recipes are today standouts in BBQ fare. Those of Billy Sims BBQ resulted from experimentation among employees, says Sims, who now sports 50 restaurants.
He visits for special appearances, including Ford Field’s annual football season opener, where he stands outside for an hour and a half to sign autographs and take photos with fans. The stadium also has a Sims restaurant there.
“The fans mean everything to me,” he said. “I truly appreciate them and their support.”
Once celebrated for his high-stepping antics in the end zone, Sims now sets examples as a loyal sports hero and a hard worker within his restaurants. Observers see him just as dedicated at busing tables as signing autographs.
“I never ask the employees to do anything I wouldn’t do,” he explains.
When asked about the upcoming football season for the Lions, Sims, who never scouted talent for the NFL, thoughtfully considers a prediction. Among past accurate assessments of the Lions’ skills, he carefully mulls over the current state of the team.
“Well, they lost some key members, so it’ll be interesting to see where they take it this year,” he said. Then he adds with a laugh, “But, it’s 0 and 0 for all of the teams, so right now, that’s good. At least for a while anyway, they’re all even.”
Although this is Sims’ second cruise, he is equally comfortable in his role as businessman, restaurateur and sports icon. He and the Royal Oak BBQ are also bound to continue in that journey in the years to come — if the public has anything to say about it.
The Woodward Dream Cruise began in 1995 as the fundraising impetus of Nelson House and focused volunteers seeking a Ferndale soccer field. Their theme was to re-capture a Woodward past when drivers traveled from drive-in to drive-in along the corridor, the primary socialization for many during that era.
Today, it’s grown to the world’s largest one-day automotive event, encompassing more than 40,000 cars and 1.5 million people. It stretches from the communities of Ferndale through Pontiac on the third Saturday each August and draws auto enthusiasts and their vehicles from around the globe.
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