It took brothers Brent and Juan Reaves months to reopen Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que in Dallas after a devastating fire in 2017. The grand reopening was held last February. Thankfully, their dad, Smokey John Reaves, got to see it before he passed away six months later. “Instability is becoming our new norm,” Brent tells me, a bit dejected after a major slowdown in business this past week. It’s been a rough eighteen months for this classic Dallas barbecue joint, but the biggest challenge is still ahead of the brothers.

Smokey John’s is currently running at about 50 percent of its normal revenue. The usual service patterns have been upended: a brisk lunch business has been Smokey John’s strength for decades, and folks just aren’t showing up. Since Dallas County implemented its shelter-in-place order (one of the first in the state), many potential customers have been confused about what that means; they don’t understand that they are still allowed to pick up to-go orders from restaurants that are offering that service. Brent and Juan have been trying to reach out to their customer base daily on Facebook Live chats (these are actually pretty entertaining) to remind people that they’re open for business. Smokey John’s is offering curbside pickup, but Brent said the majority of their customers choose to come inside to order their food to go. “They want to see the food,” he says.

Catering, a big part of their business, has all but disappeared. Brent says he’s trying to target the businesses deemed “essential” that are near the restaurant in case they might still have employees that the joint can serve. Smokey John’s got a boost this week when it received a large order from the Dallas Mavericks. The team has partnered with DoorDash to deliver meals to health care workers across the city. According to Brent, Mavericks forward Justin Jackson purchased one hundred barbecue meals that Smokey John’s delivered to Parkland Hospital.

Brent knows it could be much worse. He says a number of his restaurant friends have opted to close temporarily. “In our shopping strip, the donut shop closed last week, and the new sushi spot closed last week as well,” he says. He feels their pain, adding, “You put all your time and energy into it, and for something like this to shut you down. That just sucks.” For now, the joint has been able to keep its full time staff, although some of them aren’t working a full schedule.

Smokey John’s now offers to-go, curbside, and free delivery services.Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

As for menu adjustments, Brent says, “I’m selling probably more fish than brisket,” and I can attest that their fried catfish is excellent. He said offering family meal packages has been a big success. The bulk of their revenue now comes not from lunch but from take-home orders in the late afternoon and early evening.

Despite the small victories, Brent says he and Juan have discussed the possibility of closing. “How much can we get to, and what’s going to be our break-even?,” he asks. But they plan to push forward and make the most of the opportunity they’ve been given to connect with their existing and new customers. “People are being very supportive,” he says, adding: “If you make that impression now, to come out of this could really take us to another level.”

Smokey John’s also launched a new free delivery service this week (it also uses Grubhub for paid delivery). It’s a sort of barbecue outreach program to different parts of the DFW area on different days of the week.

  • Tuesday: Grand Prairie and Arlington
  • Wednesday: North Dallas, Addison, Carrollton, and Farmers Branch
  • Thursday: Oak Cliff, Cedar Hill, DeSoto, and Duncanville
  • Friday: Plano, Richardson, and Frisco

Orders of more than $40 placed before 7 p.m. the previous day will be eligible for the delivery program, and the meals will be delivered between 1 and 4 p.m. Juan or Brent might even be the ones handing it off to you. They won’t know whether the deliveries will continue until they see the response this week, but Brent says they’ll try just about anything to boost their sales.

He recalls working with Juan and their dad at a Smokey John’s booth at a carnival almost twenty years ago. Nobody was coming up to buy anything, and the boys didn’t know what to do. Dad told them, “You need to take some food into the crowd and just start giving them samples.” They did, and they could hardly keep up with the orders after that. “I never forgot that,” says Brent, who reminded Juan about that story last week, telling him, “Bro, we gotta go out to the crowd again.”