Wiley’s Championship BBQ is an unlikely candidate for characterization as a world-class barbecue restaurant. It’s not conveniently located in Savannah’s historic downtown, a popular destination for more than 14 million tourists every year. Nor is it located near the beach at Tybee Island, another extremely popular destination for visitors and locals alike. On the contrary, Wiley’s—as it’s referenced in local parlance—is tucked between a liquor store and another restaurant in an unassuming strip mall just off the main route connecting downtown Savannah to the beach. And yet in spite of its relative obscurity (or maybe because of it), Wiley’s Championship BBQ is wholly deserving of the moniker world-class.
One of the many curiosities on the walls at Wiley’s—and there are many—is a world map riddled with straight pins. The pins mark “home” for the thousands of people each year who are lucky enough to find their way to what was once one of the best-kept barbecue secrets in the country. There are pins from literally every corner of the globe: Europe, Russia, Malaysia, Africa, Canada, and nearly every state in the U.S. So it’s no surprise that Wiley’s clocks in at #1 on TripAdvisor’s list of the best barbecue restaurants in Savannah and at #8 on the list of best restaurants in all of Savannah.
Wiley’s Championship BBQ is no stranger to accolades; it has been accumulating awards and making Best of lists for the better part of its 12- year history. But recently, Wiley’s received some attention that felt extra special. In January 2020, Southern Living magazine paid a visit to the restaurant.
“All Southern Living said was, ‘We just want to take a few pictures of your restaurant, and we’ve heard great things about you,’” says Nate Shaffer, owner/ operator of Wiley’s Championship BBQ. “Then they said, ‘We’d like to sample your food.’ So they took some pictures of the food, and then they ate the food, and they loved it!”
“About a week later,” Shaffer continues, “I get another call from Southern Living and they say, ‘We’ve got something in store for you, and we think you’ll like it. We’re not going to give you details; just stay tuned.’ After a few days, honestly I just kind of let the thought fall by the wayside.”
Soon afterward, Shaffer received a call from Food Network Canada. John Catucci, the host of the popular television show “Big Food Bucket List,” told Shaffer he wanted to highlight Wiley’s Championship BBQ as one of their Top 15 Restaurants to Visit in America. They filmed a segment for an episode that will air later this year.
“We did a food presentation for them,” says Shaffer, describing the production. “We had some customers come in. They interviewed customers and it went off awesome. I was super pleased. They interviewed our pitmaster, Marion, and included his experience in the episode.”
A Legacy Begins
The legacy of Wiley’s Championship BBQ began with its founder, Clifford “Wiley” McCrary, Jr. Born in Atlanta in 1946, Wiley spent more than 15 years working for Massey and Fair Food Brokers, which was founded by his grandfather in 1929. He started a catering business in 1983 with an emphasis on barbecue and grilled foods. In 1991, Wiley entered his first barbecue competition at the urging of his wife Janet, who indicated she was just tired of the “someday” excuses Wiley made for not competing, which was clearly something he really wanted to try. Wiley took second place in the ribs category in that first competition in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and from that point forward he was hooked.
For the next 16 years, Wiley and Janet McCrary traveled the countr y together, competing in barbecue competitions in cornfields, at motor speedways, and just about anywhere else a barbecue competition could be held. Over the years they amassed scores of wins on the competitive barbecue circuit, and the numerous trophies, ribbons and certificates that adorn the walls of the restaurant today are a testament to their success. During the same time, Wiley’s catering company in Atlanta also blossomed, serving a long list of well-known Atlanta businesses such as Coca-Cola, CNN and Bell South.
In 2005, the McCrarys fulfilled a lifelong dream by moving to Savannah. They established Savannah BBQ & Catering, and within a year the most common question people asked was, “When are you going to open a restaurant?” So in 2008, when a little restaurant space opened up in a nondescript strip mall on Whitemarsh Island, Wiley’s Championship BBQ was born.
Word about Wiley’s spread quickly among the locals in those first few years, and it wasn’t long before the restaurant became a mainstay atop local Best of Savannah lists. The restaurant grew from a small, 34-seat establishment, more than doubling in size into the space next door. And because good secrets are so hard to keep—especially when they involve good food—Wiley’s began to attract the attention of more than just the locals, including top recommendations from TripAdvisor and Explore Georgia, and being named to the National BBQ News Best of the Best list for seven consecutive years.
Wiley McCrary himself shunned the spotlight and tended to avoid public attention—including interviews—whenever he could. Despite this, Wiley ’s Championship BBQ received attention from “Good Morning America,” Huffington Post, FoodieHubTV and CNN. In 2014, McCrary penned a book titled BBQ Secrets Old Men Take to the Grave, which was named the BBQ Book of the Year by the National BBQ News.
Sadly, Wiley McCrary passed away in 2017, just a few months shy of the restaurant’s 10-year anniversary. Reflecting on opening a restaurant, Janet says, “It was a gutsy thing for two 60-year- olds [to do]. I had just retired from teaching. We moved here and thought we’d have a little barbecue spot and people could taste our food and maybe we’d do some catering. We were just shocked that we were received so well. It’s been a blessing.”
A Legacy Preserved
From the first day the doors opened at Wiley’s Championship BBQ, two people were constantly by Wiley McCrary’s side: his wife Janet and his pitmaster Marion Woodbury.
“I really kind of stumbled into the job,” recalls Woodbury. “I was looking for a part-time job, and I just happened upon this tiny little barbecue joint that was looking for some help.” Woodbury, now in his late 50s, says his love affair with cooking started with a summer restaurant job. “It was hot and sweaty and everybody was working their tails off, but I liked doing it. And I still do.”
Woodbury spent more than 40 years in restaurant kitchens cooking everything from Greek and Jewish cuisine to steaks, seafood and other standard fare. He’d only had a little experience with cooking barbecue when he met the man he still refers to as “The Barbecue King,” but he found in Wiley McCray a more-than-willing teacher. “His Number One rule was don’t cook by time,” says Woodbury. “That was the first and most important thing Wiley taught me, and it was one of his biggest pet peeves: temperature—always cook to the internal temperature. And that’s what we do.”
Woodbury explains that he doesn’t believe cooking barbecue is any more or less difficult than cooking any other type of food. “You know, honestly, I don’t find anything that I learned to be difficult. I think that everything has its own way of being done. When I say that I mean being processed, being cleaned, being marinated—its own time zone or temperature for which it’s cooked. But you know, when you love doing something there isn’t anything that’s hard about it. It’s just a process to be learned.”
This no-nonsense, practical approach to cooking barbecue was one of Wiley McCrary’s frequent refrains in conversations with home cooks and backyard barbecue aficionados. Writing in his 2014 cookbook, Wiley’s Championship BBQ: Secrets that Old Men Take to the Grave, McCrary dispels the notions of mystery and complexity that seem to form a smoky haze around the process of cooking barbecue:
Barbecue is surrounded by myths, folklore and downright lies. The truth is that although good barbecue is an art form, the skills are transferable.We, who’ve gone before, owe it to the universe to teach [others], just the way someone taught us. I couldn’t have gotten to where I am without the wonderful teachers I’ve been blessed with throughout my life.
A Legacy Endures
When Wiley’s doubled in size in 2015, Nate Shaffer was the banker who financed the expansion. “I’ve always lived just two minutes up the road from the restaurant,” says Shaffer, “and I make it a point to stay in close touch with a lot of my clients. I’d always eat there like twice a week.”
A few months after Wiley passed away, Shaffer was in the restaurant eating lunch. He struck up a conversation with Janet McCrary, who told him she planned to sell the restaurant. Shaffer said he was interested in purchasing it. At first, Janet thought he was joking, but he was quite serious. “I reviewed the business plan and the financials and did a market analysis,” says Shaffer. “And I said to myself, ‘This just makes sense—great reputation, great accolades and everybody already knows about it.’ So I bought it.”
Already familiar with the financial, operational and marketing sides of the business, Shaffer spent his first three months as the new owner by getting a crash course in cooking barbecue from pitmaster Marion Woodbury. “I run the operational side of the business,” says Shaffer, “but now if I had to get my hands dirty, I could.”
Shaffer also identified the importance of taking steps to ensure that the legacy of Wiley’s Championship BBQ endures. “Marion has always been Wiley’s head pitmaster,” says Shaffer. “Back in the day, if Wiley wasn’t doing the cooking, Marion was— and he’s still here. And now we have two junior apprentice pitmasters working underneath Marion who are learning to carry on the trade.”
“I’m trying to pass along the same ideas,” says Woodbury. “We deal in the same seasonings. We deal in the same sauces that Wiley created. We cook to the same temperature. I want [the junior pitmasters] to put food on the cookers the same way and check them the same way. You know, anybody that I train—I pretty much teach them the same way that I do it because it’s important that this gets passed on.”
Nate Shaffer’s plan for the future seems to be working. In March 2020, Southern Living magazine released its list of the South’s Best. Wiley’s Championship BBQ was named the #1 barbecue restaurant in Georgia and the #2 barbecue restaurant in the country by the readers of Southern Living.
Maybe philosopher William James was correct when he said, “The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.” Because if that’s true, then it’s not an exaggeration to say that the barbecue at Wiley’s Championship BBQ is indeed a legacy—and that the legacy is strong and enduring.
For more information about Wiley’s Championship BBQ, visit WileysChampionshipBBQ.com or follow them on Facebook and Instagram.