Smile Politely

For C-U faithful, Po’ Boy’s is no generic name

In December of 2006, the original Po’ Boy’s closed its doors after being in business for 53 years. The man behind the Champaign institution would pass from this life within the year. He left in his wake a devoted band of family, friends, U of I alumni and athletes, as well as a rabid horde of barbeque fans, myself included.

While my memories of Arnie Yarber are not as long as for many, they are nevertheless limitless in their own reach. The smell of the smoke, sugar, and vinegar hanging about the little wood and aluminum shack in downtown Champaign is one of the earliest inklings of my conscious existence. Later, on a few occasions, Arnie smoked a whole Thanksgiving turkey for my family. I’ve never had anything like it since. Po’ Boy’s was, and remained, a staple for weekend nights, best coupled with Illini football and basketball.

So it is with a tremendous sense of pleasure, as well as nostalgia, that I inform you that for two days only, this weekend, there is a chance to experience the original Po’ Boy’s, with everything in its proper place except the great man himself.

The road to the present is always a bit circuitous, and this barbeque story is no different. For most of my life, Po’ Boy’s was only open on Friday and Saturday evenings. About 20 years ago, Arnie sold the rights to market his signature sauce and the Po’ Boy’s name to one Ivan Richardson. Richardson had plans to open Po‘ Boy’s on other Big Ten campuses. This was apparently to be a ten year deal, the conclusion of which would see the rights revert back to the Yarbers. Richardson opened a restaurant on Cunningham in Urbana, but changed the menu and sauce entirely. The original sat empty for over a year. Richardson failed to ever open another Po‘ Boy’s. With a bbq void left in town, Arnie decided to sublet his own restaurant back from Richardson. At some later date, Richardson, or an assignee of his, apparently sold whatever rights he did or didn’t own to the Rasners who now operate the facility out in Urbana at the old T.K. Wendl’s.

Perhaps there are some questions as to what constitutes the real Po’ Boy’s. I know for a fact that these questions do not bother the Yarbers, who only wish great success for the Rasners.

For this writer, there is no question.

The new joint is, on any other day of the year, as close as one is likely to come to tasting Arnie’s sauce. At least for the time. (Word is that Arnie’s son Daryl, otherwise known as Herk, is prepping a powder-based version of the sauce for the market.) For my money, the sauce at the Urbana version is close, but everything else about the new version is way off the mark.

The elements that made Po’ Boy’s an institution and landmark, as well as one hell of a place to grab barbeque on Friday and Saturday are all conspicuously absent at the sports bar-cum-frat-park with the similar sauce. Po’ Boy’s was a community destination, a place to continue 10-year-old conversations, to stand in the kitchen and listen to Arnie spin yarns and deliver our collective history, from World War II to the most recent contest at Memorial Stadium. Family friend and event organizer Dan Hamelberg has described Arnie as a second dad, a feeling shared by many that passed through Arnie’s doors.

That is something that can’t be replicated.

So this is your chance to get the original sauce, created by the original man at the original restaurant. All product will be coming from the same sources that Arnie ordered from and Herk will be mixing that beautiful sauce. Courvoisier and orange pop will be flowing freely in the kitchen, just the way it used to.

To top it off, nothing will be charged for sandwiches. The organizers are simply asking for donations. All proceeds from the weekend will go the U of I athletic department to set up a scholarship for athletic trainers in Arnie’s name. You see, Arnie was not only a great chef and sports fan, he was also a trainer himself. It was his passion as much as slow-smoked pork. Last year, the Po’ Boy’s homecoming event raised $10k and they’re hoping to top that.

The real Po’ Boy’s will be open this Friday and Satuday, October 9 and 10, from 5:30 p.m. until the meat runs out. My suggestion — get there early.

Po’ Boy’s is still located at:

58 E. Columbia
Champaign, IL

The organizers would like this to be an annual event, done for the sake of great stories, friends, and the memory of Arnie. And out of this world barbeque. So please. Make this happen. Even once a year, it’s worth the wait.

More Articles