Gulfport’s Smokin’ J’s BBQ Brings Heart, Soul and Chest to the Community
John Riesebeck looks like a backcountry pit master – a real baggy t-shirt, mustache and southern-style cargo shorts. He speaks in a thick Texan drawl and acts like a rattlesnake. If you’ve ever dined at his restaurant, Smokin’ J’s BBQ, you’ve probably seen it.
When I arrived at Smokin’ J’s, the exterior of the building and John’s appearance convinced me of the type of place I was entering. I expected simple, no frills service with minimal customer interaction. I expected to queue, get my food and leave. That was, after all, how most of the best barbecues in the country worked.
As soon as John served me my food, however, I was reminded why we don’t judge books by their covers. Rather than rush to his smoker, he sat down next to me, explained what was on my plate, and remembered the time he fed thousands of victims of the hurricane with the same.
Behind his tough exterior, I discovered he was a compassionate man who loved two simple things: cooking meat and serving his community.
Bringing Texas BBQ to Florida
“The first time I sold barbecues,” John explained, “was to truckers at truck stops. Sometimes these guys were stuck on the road in the same place for weeks. I sold them $5 sandwiches, but if there was something they really wanted, like a Pizza Hut pizza, I would try to get them some too.
At the time, John was working for a food service provider in Dallas. When that business moved to Oklahoma, however, he decided to move to Florida rather than follow. While helping his sister open a dog grooming service on St. Pete’s Central Ave, he realized a sudden realization.
“In 2008, I tasted beef brisket from a street vendor here. The meat was well cooked, but it was badly seasoned,” he said. “I liked that there was a barbecue in Florida, but Florida needed a real Texas barbecue.”
Make a home in Gulfport
From there, John was a man on a mission to spread his native flavors to the Sunshine City. He bought two trailers and a smokehouse and installed a mobile kitchen at Ahearn’s Chevron. After only a few months, the demand for his barbecue was too high to meet.
In 2009, in response to his newfound popularity, John purchased an official brick-and-mortar location in Gulfport. The new space was located just 1.7 miles from the old Ahearn lot, allowing Smokin’ J’s to continue serving its original “regulars”. Between those loyal customers and John’s inclusion of his family members in opening the restaurant, the place has acquired a family-oriented, community-centric atmosphere.
To this day, Smokin’ J’s stay at this cottage-sized Gulfport home. John’s wife Lisa’s involvement in the restaurant helps the food retain its comforting, home-cooked feel, while each of the staff, John says, feels like family. Taken together, these factors have made Smokin’ J’s a local favorite in Gulfport.
“We have so many regulars,” John said. “Most of our business comes from loyal customers. The camaraderie of this community is what has made us successful. And the more they give to us, the more we want to give back to them. We support them, they support us.
Giving back to the community of St. Pete
At Smokin’ J’s, however, supporting the community doesn’t just mean serving hearty meals, it means participating in local fundraisers, contributing to non-profit charities, sponsoring clubs and organizations, and more. . Whenever there’s an opportunity to help others or get involved in St. Pete events, John says, Smokin’ J’s takes it.
“We have three values in this restaurant,” John said. “Food safety, personal safety and customer satisfaction. The last is the most important. We help people and make them happy. We make them feel like part of the family.
According to particularly high user reviews on Google, this is exactly what, and the food, keeps customers coming back.
As respectable as it is that John loves his community, a restaurant cannot run on good values alone.
Food should also be unique and competitive. Luckily, Smokin’ J’s has a tasty menu with a handful of items that are definitely worth trying.
Curious to know what some of these offers are? Here are a few that I have tried:
- Pulled Pork – My favorite of the meats in the place, Smokin’ J’s Pork Butts are slowly smoked for 16 hours before being hand-pulled and finished with a light sauce.
- Back ribs – These are dry rubbed, oak smoked and with a choice of two sides per plate.
- Award-winning chile – Smokin’ J’s Famous Brisket Chili has won numerous regional awards. The best way to eat it? On corn tostada chips as nachos.
- Lisa’s Tater Salad – This is made by John’s wife, Lisa, using her grandmother’s recipe. With relish, onion and the perfect amount of creamy mayo, this is probably the best potato salad you’ll ever eat.
- Pa cabbage salad – John’s dad went to school with Colonel Sanders, so this gourmet coleslaw is as close to the original KFC recipe as you can get. Cool, sloppy and refreshing, I liked to mix it with the smoked pork from the restaurant.
Ready to eat?
Does this menu preview set you up to dirty your shirt and stick your fingers? Then it’s time to go to Smokin’ J’s and cook yourself a barbecue.
What if you’re not hungry? Go for a soda and the good vibes.
At John’s Community Hub, everything down to the “homemade pickle ice cream” is full of heart and soul.
Smokin’ J’s BBQ is located at 5145 Gulfport Blvd S in Gulfport. For the full restaurant menu, hours of operation and more, customers can visit the official website here.