Hard Workin’ Man

By Niki D’Andrea

Bob Sikora has a legacy of country music clubs and an empire of eateries

Bob Sikora says he hopes his work and “raving fans” keep him healthy. (Photo by Pablo Robles)

Waylon Jennings is watching us.

That’s what it feels like, anyway, sitting inside the Biltmore location of Bobby-Q restaurant, where a big wheat paste portrait of the outlaw country music legend is placed prominently on the brick wall. Bob Sikora’s back is to the image of Jennings, but when it’s mentioned, he turns to the portrait and nods. “A dear friend,” he says softly.

Sikora owns three Bobby-Q locations throughout the Valley, and each one contains some distilled essence of Jennings. He remains close to Jennings’ widow, Jessi Colter, who showed up to surprise him at the opening of his Bobby-Q restaurant in Mesa a little over three years ago. As the founder of the legendary Mr. Lucky’s Night Club on Grand Avenue in 1966, Sikora was one of the first people to put Jennings on stage in the Valley.

Now 79, Sikora’s something of a legend in his own time. Every budding young country crooner from Willie Nelson to Tanya Tucker rocked the stages at Mr. Lucky’s. Thousands of people packed the club seven nights a week to enjoy live rock and roll in the basement and country music on the main floor. Sikora put stages over the pool tables for go-go dancers, which were a hit with patrons. The 99-cent Friday Night Fish Fry was also popular.

“The place was packed every night, and it was on Grand Avenue, which is unheard of because it wasn’t in the best location,” Sikora says.

Mr. Lucky’s thrived under Sikora until the mid-1980s, when he sold it to performer J. David Sloan. Though the vaunted club subsequently closed, Sloan pays homage to the venue with “Back to Mr. Lucky’s Night” every Wednesday at Handlebar-J in Scottsdale (complete with a fish fry).

In 1971, Sikora launched the Bobby McGee’s restaurant chain, a supper club concept with rustic antique décor that extended to 24 locations during its 1980s heyday, some as far flung as North Carolina and Australia. Sikora eventually sold all but one outpost of Bobby McGee’s – the one in Phoenix, near Dunlap Avenue just north of the I-17. In 2006, he made the decision to close Bobby McGee’s and reopen the space as the first Bobby-Q location.

It wasn’t a snap decision. “I needed to do a remodel (on Bobby McGee’s). In the meantime, I’ve always wanted to do barbecue, so I said, ‘Maybe I’ll just be barbecue and shut down (Bobby McGee’s),” Sikora says. “That was tough to do because it had been in my blood for all those years – 45 years of Bobby McGee’s, which is a long run.”

So Sikora set off on a research journey around the country, trying different types of barbecue. He visited the barbecue beacons of Texas, Kansas City and Memphis. He spent a couple weeks on his culinary sojourn and came back to Arizona and started working on recipes. But he felt like he needed to do more research. So he went back to all the barbecue beacons.

“I’d get in a cab and go from place to place,” Sikora recalls. “Every time I got a cab driver, I’d ask where the best barbecue was, and whatever they told me, that’s where I’d go. That’s how I did all my research.”

“The sauce was the most important thing to develop,” he continues. “I like the vinegar-based sauce, but the masses like more of a sweet sauce, which is what I have today.”

Bobby-Q’s menu of pulled pork, beef brisket, smoked ribs and craft cocktails was a hit. “Every customer that came through that door loved the service, loved the food, and it built from there,” Sikora says. “We do $11 million out that store, which is unheard of for that location.”

Three years ago, Sikora opened a second location in Mesa. He’s celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Biltmore location of Bobby-Q this month.

Restaurant Flippin’ Cowboy

Bob Sikora has been working hard all his life. He’d moved to Arizona with his family from Huntington, West Virginia when he was 10 years old. By that time, he’d already had his first taste of entrepreneurship, having opened and run his own shoeshine stand when he was 7.

He dropped out of high school during his junior year to work full-time at the McDonald’s franchise at Central Avenue and Indian School Road, where he cooked 15-cent hamburgers from 5 p.m. until midnight and then cleaned the restaurant from midnight until 6 a.m. “I worked two jobs in the morning and then another in the evening,” Sikora recalls. His goal was to save all his money and open his own restaurant – which he did, with his savings and a $500 bank loan, when he was 19 years old. It was called Bob’s Pancake House and located at 20th Street and Camelback Road.

“I worked at it myself from 7 in the morning ‘til 11 at night, seven days a week, for 18 months,” Sikora says. After he sold the restaurant, he took over a coffee shop and saved it from bankruptcy, then sold it and opened a breakfast, lunch and dinner concept. He sold that and opened a burger joint, which he also sold. “I flip restaurants like people flip houses,” Sikora says.

And he’s not slowing down any time soon. He plans to expand the Bobby-Q concept to more locations throughout the Valley over the next five years. To say he’s constantly working is an understatement.

“I tried to retire twice. Once, I had bought a ranch in northern Arizona with around 600 head of cattle on 75,000 acres of forest,” he says.

A few years later, he sold that ranch and bought another near Camp Verde, which he still owns. He and a team of hired cowboys raise and break quarter horses there. “I get up in the morning, go get my latte, go to the gym, come back, feed the horses, change clothes and go out and raise horses,” Sikora says.

And of course, he remains involved in the day-to-day operations of Bobby-Q. His small staff includes people who have worked for him for decades, starting in serving positions and working up to supervisor positions and management. “I’ve got three people under me that are my managing partners, so they’ll take my place when I go away,” Sikora says.

But he hopes that’s not for a while. “I’m planning on working until I get tired. Too many people retiring. Then two years later, they croak because they lay back and watch TV and eat bon-bons and get fat and sassy,” he says with a smile and a chuckle.

“I hope it keeps me healthy,” Sikora adds of his work. “And the raving fans. When I come in and check on the tables, I get raving fans.”