Juan Reaves had just left Dallas and was on his way to Sherman when he got the call that his restaurant, Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que, was on fire. He was in a van loaded with barbecue for a catering job, so he couldn’t turn around. He called his brother and business partner, Brent Reaves, urging him to hurry to the restaurant. Brent pulled up at 5:08 p.m., exactly 18 minutes after Juan had left the joint. “There are three fire trucks out here, and there’s smoke coming all out of everywhere,” Brent remembers telling his brother over the phone as he maneuvered through the fire department’s road blocks. A firefighter who allowed Brent to drive into the parking lot said, “It’s real bad, man.”
Up in Sherman, Juan had to put on a smiling face for his catering customers. He didn’t get back until after dark to find the burnt shell of a kitchen, half-eaten plates of food left on tables by fleeing customers, and the suffocating odor of smoke. “The smell of it was horrific,” Juan said. It was September 9, 2017, and the brothers had no idea how long it would take to recover. They never thought it would be sixteen months before the doors reopened. They were more worried about how they were going to cook barbecue for their biggest event of the year. The State Fair of Texas was two weeks away, and Smokey John’s operates six different booths—selling turkey legs, brisket, ribs, and tamales—on the fairgrounds. Most of that food was cooked in the restaurant. They had to find smokers, fast.
Marshall Pritchard of Sammy’s BBQ, in Dallas, offered his outdoor Oyler smoker for a while. Then they moved operations to sports bar Lakewood’s First & 10, whose owner let them use his smoker. The Smokey John’s team made it through the fair, but afterward reality set in. Their insurance wasn’t as robust as they thought, and the settlement wasn’t nearly enough for the required repairs. Thanks to their business interruption coverage, they were able to pay employees during the extended closure, but the delays were frustrating. Their landlord didn’t finalize the repairs to their roof until the following May, and the brothers knew they had to prepare for yet another State Fair without a restaurant.
Overcoming adversity has been an unfortunate running theme for Smokey John’s. Founder John Reaves was working in mortgage banking in Dallas in the late seventies, but it wasn’t going well. He fired up the smoker he called “Big Dan” in his backyard and started smoking whole turkeys during the holidays. Word got around. “One year I sold over 200 smoked turkeys, and I didn’t have a restaurant,” John told me. “I had [raw] turkeys stacked in my mother-in-law’s bathtub, in my bathtub.” The smoker could handle only 20 turkeys at a time. The smoking went fine, but the growing operation fell apart during delivery. “I hired some guys to deliver turkeys for me, but they went off and got drunk, and I couldn’t find them,” John said. He had to deliver all the turkeys himself, which took a lot longer than planned. When he got home after the last delivery, on Christmas Day, his late wife Gloria told him, “We’re gonna be in the turkey barbecue business, or we’re going to be in the mortgage banking business.” He chose barbecue.
“Smokey” John Reaves opened his first joint at the corner of Lemmon Avenue and Mockingbird Lane in Dallas in 1976. The barbecue was popular, but he’d never run a restaurant. “My [turkey] business had been taking dollars and making dollars, but in the restaurant business you have to turn pennies into dollars,” John said. He’d soon have all the capital he needed after Drew Pearson and Harvey Martin of the Dallas Cowboys became investors. They expanded the concept to locations across Texas, from San Antonio to El Paso, as detailed in a 1983 Sports Illustrated profile of Martin:
“In ’76 he had invested in a barbecue restaurant named Smokey John’s … in ’79 a restaurant in Irving named Smokey’s Express; in ’80 a block of renovated restaurants and office space in San Antonio and a second Smokey’s Express in Dallas; and in ’81 a second Smokey John’s in Dallas and a restaurant named Rib Cage in El Paso.”
Each new opening put more emphasis on the nightclub aspect of the business than the barbecue. The trio was raking in cash, but John Reaves’s religious convictions began to make him uneasy with the lifestyle he’d created for himself.
Chapter 2, verse 15, of the Bible’s Book of Habakkuk came to his mind one evening in 1981, as John watched an upstanding friend get drunk in his bar and make a fool of himself. In the King James version, the verse reads: “Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also, that thou mayest look on their nakedness!” A year later, a tragedy further caused John to question his own motivations. “We had a guy one night, he left my club, and it so happened he went to another club,” John recalled. “He left that club and he went up on the wrong side of LBJ and killed himself and two other people. After that, I didn’t want nothing else to do with this liquor business.”
Smokey John’s stopped serving alcohol and got honest about their cash sales, which they had been intentionally under-reporting. John started a weekly Bible study in what used to be the bar. Once-loyal customers boycotted the restaurant, and by 1984 he had filed for bankruptcy protection. Only the original location remained. He lost friends, business partners, and riches, but he said he’d do it the same way if he had it to do over again.
Those first years of Smokey John’s ended with a crash, but John won’t deny that there were plenty of good times to remember with Pearson, Martin, and the party atmosphere of those early restaurants. Cowboys players would come in for platters of ribs and whiskey. Live music ran late into the night. “Guys like Johnny Taylor, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, and all those guys would go downtown and make all their money, then come back and play until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning for me for free,” John said. “All I had to do was give them some cognac and ribs. We locked the door up and jammed all night.”
Then there was the day that freshly minted Super Bowl MVP Harvey Martin gave the business a nationally televised plug. Just a few weeks after the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII, in 1978, the Cowboys competed against the Kansas City Royals baseball team in a multi-sport competition on ABC called Superteams. “They was in the tug of war,” John said of Martin and Pearson. “And each one of them had a rib in their mouth.” The competition aired on a Sunday, and John wasn’t prepared for the coming onslaught. “Monday morning I got to the restaurant, and we’re doing our regular routine. At about 11 we had all these limousines and cabs pulling up and all these folks getting out. At 12 o’clock I was out of business because I ain’t got no more meat,” he said, still feeling the sting of a lost opportunity.
I was told so many conflicting stories about this particular endorsement, by so many Reaves family members, that it was hard to pinpoint where I should look for the clip. Some said it was during the Pro Bowl, and others remembered Martin talking up Smokey John’s ribs while accepting the MVP trophy, which he shared with Randy White, at the Super Bowl. When John Reaves told me about the tug of war, I had the lead I needed, and I found the video below.
Keith Jackson was the commentator for the 1978 Superteams Final. The two teams were tied after all but one competition, and the tug of war was the tie-breaker. It had gone on far longer than anyone expected, and looked to be a stalemate, when O.J. Simpson took his microphone out into the sand to interview an exhausted Martin. “Oh boy, I am dying,” Martin said as they cut to a pre-recorded clip of Martin on his radio show in Dallas. At about the 8:00 minute mark, he lifts a ladle of sauce to his nose, and says, “Boy, this is the best barbecue in town.” John can be seen handing Martin chopped brisket, and the segment ends with Martin happily slurping every bite of meat and sauce from a rib bone.
Martin promised viewers that his barbecue joint was the best in town, but John remembers his competition well. “There was Hardeman’s, LG Dave’s, and Sonny Bryan’s. Oh, and Carter’s was the hot thing back in those days,” he told me. Only Sonny Bryan’s and Smokey John’s remain from that group, but Reaves was forced to move his restaurant from its original location when the property at Mockingbird and Lemmon was sold. In December 1999, the restaurant reopened in their current building on West Mockingbird. Brent Reaves graduated from UNT that same month and came back into the fold. Juan had left a job with the Hoop It Up basketball league a year earlier to help his dad reopen. In 2013 the brothers took full control of the business, but their dad visits often to get a chopped brisket sandwich. When I asked Smokey John if he misses working at the joint, he laughed. “Me and nothing have got a great relationship,” he said. “I do nothing, and he does nothing. We’ve been working on this relationship.”
Just a couple weeks ago, on January 30, the brothers were relieved to finally reopen their doors after the fire. They survived by focusing on the catering side of their business and cringed as they watched one-star Yelp reviews pile up during the closure. They’re happy to be back serving customers face-to-face. During a visit on a recent Thursday, a group of four behind me was there just for the pot roast special. There’s a different non-barbecue feature every day. Brent said the most popular is turkey and dressing on Fridays.
I’m partial to the ribs and the house-made spicy garlic sausage. The former are sweet, salty, and smoky—and the best seller on the menu. They’re oddly cut in half just before plating. The practice started as a nod to the white-collar crowd, making it easier to eat the ribs without making a mess. Brent said it’s been a focus of theirs to improve the brisket. “It’s a good quality brisket. It’s something we can be proud of,” he said, but it remains unpredictable. One portion I ordered was undercooked and tough, while another was tender and juicy. Get it chopped in a generously portioned sandwich or served over one of their popular stuffed potatoes.
There are a few items the brothers claim don’t get enough love. The double-patty, half-pound cheeseburger is impressive, and they fry up some beautifully crisp catfish, seasoned with a special rub. There are plans to pair it with brisket or ribs on a barbecue “surf-and-turf” platter. The sides beat most other joints in town. Stewed cabbage, yams, greens, and their mother’s famous mac and cheese go well with anything on the menu. A scoop of banana pudding or one of the butter cakes (I liked the lemon), made locally by Carol Chance, are both great options for dessert.
I could go on about every menu item, but Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que, a 43-year-old Dallas institution, has been resurrected. That alone is worth celebrating. There’s a grand re-opening planned for this Saturday, February 16. Stop in to help break in the shiny new dining room, and say hello to Juan and Brent, both of whom will probably have smiles on their faces. Keep an eye out for Smokey John Reaves himself. He’ll be wearing a fedora and a look of contentment. “I’m proud of them,” John said of his sons. “You know why? Because I got all my group together, and we give God thanks for the fire.”