The story of Smokey John’s BBQ is a story of growth, both for the restaurant and its owners.
Brent Reaves, co-owner of Smokey John’s BBQ, grew up around the restaurant business. Founded in 1976 as Big John’s, the family-owned restaurant took on a new name after the Mockingbird and Lemmon location filled with smoke when the pit caught fire inside the restaurant.
This was the first lesson in growth. “A regular came in after seeing all the smoke and said, ‘Y’all should call this place Smokey John’s instead of Big John’s!’ And just like that, Dad changed the restaurant’s name to Smokey John’s,” Reaves recounted with a grin.
By taking the advice from a customer, Smokey John’s became a family that included community. Originally run by John Reaves, his wife Gloria (Mama Reaves), and a cousin, Douglas “Rent” Spraglin, the restaurant was, and still is, a place where familiar faces gather for meetings, Bible studies, and even weddings.
Reaves was six years old when he learned another important lesson about growth.
“We used to have this tabletop Pac-Man game in the restaurant,” he explained. “When I would come to the restaurant I would say, ‘Dad, can I have some quarters?’ and he would give me the quarters and I would play and blow them real quick. So over and over I would ask for quarters until finally, he was like, ‘Wait a minute, go get a pitcher of water and a pitcher of iced tea and go around to all the tables, and if the glasses are half-full, refill it for them.’ So I said, ‘Okay, but what about the quarters?’ He said, ‘Just do it.’ So I kept doing this and when people left I would clean the tables off and there was money [left on the table], so I grabbed the money and told my dad, ‘They left their money.’ My dad said, ‘No, they left a tip.’ He said, ‘If you do this everyday, you will never have to ask me for Pac-Man money again,’ and I never did.”
Beginning with that lesson, Brent Reaves learned how to run the business from the bottom up. He went from collecting tips for refilling drinks to washing dishes to catering and eventually started running Smokey John’s with his brother, under the guidance of his parents and cousin, in 1999.
Families, like trees, tend to branch out as they grow. Brent ventured off to study restaurant management in college; his brother went to school to study business and communications. However, the two brothers eventually decided to return home to their roots to run the family restaurant, and their expanded education helped them grow the business even more.
Even if you haven’t visited Smokey John’s BBQ, which now sits on Mockingbird and Harry Hines Blvd, you may be familiar with their turkey legs, which are a staple at the State Fair of Texas. People far and wide visit the State Fair of Texas, one of the biggest fairs in the nation, and you would be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t had a turkey leg there.
Like most pitmasters, Reaves won’t divulge too many secrets, but he did reveal what sets Smokey John’s apart from other barbecue establishments around the country: “I think Texas is different because [Texas barbecue is] more spicy with a little sweetness. When you go to Memphis, there is really sweet bbq sauce, which you can’t really get away with in Texas…then you have the mayonnaise-based white sauce in Kansas City. We are kind of different from most places [in Texas] because we’ve merged a little bit of all those flavors together in one, so you’ll have people come from Kansas and say, ‘This is actually good.'”
Reaves says a lot has changed over the past twenty years when it comes to barbecue. He mentions a Texas favorite, Aaron Franklin, the James Beard Award-winning pitmaster, as one person whose “style has upped the game.” Reaves says he, too, has changed some things about how Smokey John’s prepares its food, but that is just another sign of growth. The restaurant is “able to still be who we are, but up the game as well.”
Reaves has found personal growth through successfully navigating the barbecue business, but he also pushes others to grow through Smokey John’s core value of education.
Reaves started creating shoebox lunches after he saw another restaurant out of state doing it. Every February for Black History Month, Smokey John’s serves lunches in actual shoe boxes as a way to educate its customers. The boxes tell the history of how Black people carried their lunches in shoeboxes as they traveled about the country, especially in the south, where it was unlikely they could stop at a restaurant to eat.
As Reaves explained the history of the shoebox lunch, he noted: “Not everyone was lucky to have a shoebox. Many times, shoes didn’t come in shoeboxes, so if you had one, you saved it.”
Reaves says the shoebox lunch initiative they foster every year serves as an educational display for school-aged children and a historical reminder for many others. “People in their seventies and eighties will come in, and they will just cry at the sight of the shoebox lunches because they remembered eating out of a shoebox,” Reaves said.
The tears of growth shed by older customers are a sign of how far society has come, and if there was a measure of how far we have to go, Reaves has felt it through the pains of the pandemic.
Luckily, he and his team were able to pivot gracefully during the COVID-19 shutdowns by delivering food to their faithful customers. In fact, this was a move they were already familiar with — after the restaurant fire that gave Smokey John’s its name, the Reaves family kept their business running through delivery. So, when the restaurant had to close in 2020 due to the pandemic, delivering food was an automatic reflex for Reaves.
Now, Smokey John’s is again looking at growth as old systems prove to be less effective and new technology, such as automation, is integrated into the future of the restaurant industry.
“Automation is coming to our industry, so we are preparing for it and plan to open more restaurants in the next year. We’re going for smaller locations in an effort to cut overhead, labor and the cost of supplies,” Reaves explained.
But the pitmaster has no plans to let this growth strip away the values that make up the foundation of his restaurant.
“We want to create a community as we grow,” he says. “Everyone has a desire to belong, and people still need to feel togetherness, so even with automation, we want to create connections between our customers and our team. [Moving forward,] food alone isn’t going to be enough; we want people to come back for the connection they have with Smokey John’s.”
Reaves’ goals for growth are not limited to just his restaurant; he’s also working with his team to grow their dreams.
Brent and his brother Juan have established a “Dare to Dream” class for Smokey John’s team members. The class helps the employees establish a goal, then educate themselves with a plan and strategy to reach the goal. Many of Reaves’ employees are interested in opening their own restaurant or trucking business.
“It’s not about my brother and I anymore; we have to grow so that our team and community grows,” says Reaves.