*Due to current safety restrictions, Lark’s is available for takeout only. Please visit its website for more information.
Barbecue is all about authenticity, time-honored traditions and bringing people together. And along The Pike, there’s more than a fair share of longtime barbecue joints to check out. For Willie Lark Sr., serving his community, along with authentic barbecue, is everything.
Once a humble car wash that offered barbecue to its customers while they waited for their cars to be finished, Lark’s Bar-B-Que has transformed into a Benton Harbor landmark.
Lark started the business in 1996 and celebrated 24 years in August 2020.
“I started barbecuing back when I was 16 years old, but what made me actually get started with the restaurant business was that I was a semitruck driver and I’d eat all over the country,” Lark said. “And food was very expensive, so I thought, man, you could buy a dozen eggs for 99 cents at the time, and you could sell one egg for $1.50. So I thought, that’s the way to make some money right there.”
Originally, Lark’s was located in a small lot just off Main Street, offering only takeout. But in 2012, that all changed. Having plans to grow the business, Lark formed a corporation with partners Marvin Raglon, Terry Stokes and Leonard Seawood.
As equal shareholders, the partners acquired and renovated Lark’s current building in downtown Benton Harbor, and made it a full-service restaurant.
Low and slow
In addition to the restaurant, Lark’s operates a concession trailer — with a smoker right on it — which is perfect for catering.
“We literally go out and prepare everything fresh right on-site with our trailer,” Seawood said. “When you think about barbecue, you think about the process, right? Our model is ‘low and slow.’ We can get 78 slabs on (the smoker) at a time. So, we can feed a lot of people with good food within a decent timespan as well.”
Lark’s slow-smokes its meat with fruit woods — primarily cherry and applewood — and makes its barbecue sauce from scratch.
“It starts with the ingredient of love,” Lark said. “You don’t want to serve something you wouldn’t eat. We have multiple seasonings that we use to help enhance our meat — I don’t think a lot of barbecue places put as much effort into their meats the way we do — we give it that oomph.”
“The marinades and dry rubs are key,” Seawood added. “And we won’t rush the barbecue. We’ve got it down to science where not only we cook it very low, but also long in the whole process with our marinades. We think we have the best barbecue in the Midwest.”
All menu items are made in-house at Lark’s. Lark’s is known for its rib tips, but its best-kept secret? The chicken.
“Now barbecue chicken, a lot of people don’t want to talk about it,” Lark said. “But, we sell a ton of chicken. We prepare and season it in a special way — it’s just awesome.”
“He says he puts his foot in it,” Stokes added. “And we do have this new slogan — ‘You can wipe off the sauce, but good luck wiping off the smile’ — people just get a kick out of that one.”
Brisket and pulled pork fly out the door along with sides and desserts (homemade by Mrs. Lark) such as greens, cornbread and peach cobbler.
“What I like is that we don’t just have barbecue,” Stokes said. “We have a variety of things that would satisfy anybody. And I think we put just as much energy into our burgers that we do our barbecue. And the fish, oh, my god, the fish is unbelievable.”
At Lark’s, it’s all about family and satisfying customers.
“I think sometimes the customers dictate what we do,” Stokes said. “We try to listen to the customer and understand them. We’ll do something new and see how people respond. It’s kind of like a small community here — people don’t just tell people about us. They bring people back with them, and that’s what I like.”
“From when we opened on day one, we still see some of the same folks,” Lark added.
Thanks to loyal guests and dedication to its craft, Lark’s has gained recognition from across the country.
“What’s really rewarding for me is the reputation we’ve established,” Raglon said. “If you go to Illinois, Ohio, Texas or wherever, and you mention Benton Harbor, Michigan, someone will always say, ‘there’s a little barbecue restaurant you need to check out.’ This restaurant has become an institution in the Michiana area.”
*Photography courtesy of Junebug Photography