Updated: Apr 30, 2019
Voss Bar-BQ has helped Central New Yorkers make memories for generations.
On a recent summer evening Tina Malara of New Hartford sat at a picnic table with her husband Andrew and their two small daughters enjoying a hamburger with barbecue sauce and French fries. A blue and white table umbrella shaded them from the sun and the familiar shape of a giant vintage milk bottle cast its long shadow over the scene. They were having dinner at the original location of Voss’ Bar B-Q on Oriskany Boulevard in Yorkville.
“Voss’ is a symbol of summer,” she said. “We wait all winter for it to open. We came here as kids, and now we bring our kids here to experience the same thing. There’s nothing different about it.” Malara echoes a sentiment that many longtime residents and those back for a visit feel.
The business has certainly been around long enough to create plenty of memories. Established in 1938 by John and Dorothy Voss in an octagon-shaped building topped with their iconic milk bottle, they sold homemade ice cream and milkshakes. Before long the building and menu had expanded, offering sandwiches, fries and more. Their famous chili and barbecue sauce are still made by Dorothy’s grandson Greg with the recipe she invented. And his brother Kenton still makes the ice cream.
From the beginning, the seasonal business, open April through November 11:00am-10:00pm, has been a family endeavor employing dozens of relatives now to the fourth generation. Dorothy, with the help of her extended family, actively ran the business for more than 50 years before gradually passing the wok along to her son Kenton “Duke” Voss and his children Kenton and Greg.
“The family comes together to make things happen. It always has.” Greg said of the place they affectionately call “The Stand.”
Greg (58) remembers working summers at the stand from an early age, and after a 32-year career in banking decided to work solely with the family business about 7 years ago. But he says the driving forces behind it were his grandmother, father and brother. His brother Kenton (59) has spent the last 40 years managing the stand on site and makes the ice cream while his wife Val cooks.
In June, Duke Voss passed away at the age of 88. “My father was a humble and generous man with a great sense of humor,” Greg said. “He was just a great guy.”
Many of Voss’ current and past employees thought he and his family were great to work for too. Several returned to work at the stand year after year for decades. DesaRae Adams who stopped by the stand for dinner with her daughter Callysta, said she worked there as a 16-year-old and has now returned. “I came back because they’re good people to work for and it’s fun,” she said, while Callysta added, “I like the cookies and cream ice cream with rainbow sprinkles.”
Another employee, Courtney Sparrow, also had positive things to say about working for the Voss family in a Google review. “The owners are awesome people,” she wrote. “It's a great place to eat and work! Very well run. Very organized. Very clean. Very fast and efficient...I’m very honored and thankful to have had the opportunity to have been able to be a part of their family business.”
Cleanliness is important to them, Greg said. “We spend a lot of time and effort to keep things clean. People don’t want to eat where there’s ground-in French fries.” They pressure wash the asphalt under the picnic tables every day it doesn’t rain.
Online reviews of Voss’ food range from one to five stars. But then food is always a matter of taste. Even Greg admits he doesn’t care for the tuna melt sandwich on the menu, but he said, “They go like hotcakes!” Greg’s personal favorites are the Cheeseburg All the Way (shown on the menu as ATW) which includes ketchup, mustard, relish, onions, and pickles. He’s also partial to the maple walnut ice cream. Although he says, “My doctor would like me to lay off those things.” Voss’ cuisine isn’t health food and doesn’t claim to be.
Despite the naysayers, Voss’ won WIBX Radio’s People’s Choice Award for Best Hot Dog in 2015 and The Observer-Dispatch’s Best of the Best for their hot dogs and barbecue in 2017.
“It seems to be a time tested success,” Greg said. “We’ve never really changed with the times.” In recent years they opened two more locations, at the Utica Zoo and another at the Ilion Marina. But they kept the menu and their traditions mostly the same. They accept only cash (although there are ATMs nearby) and there’s no phone at any of their locations. After a brief try they decided that preparing call-in orders wasn’t fair to people who had stood in line.
“Hopefully we’ll still be here for another 80 years,” Greg said. “If all else fails, we’ll save the milk bottle.”
(This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of ACCENT Monthly magazine, published by the Utica Observer-Dispatch.)