The description for Johnny’s Barbecue on Google is about as humble and honest as it gets: “Classic barbecue shack serving plates, sandwiches, sides & desserts in a basic, down-home setting.”
And even with a new owner taking over, that description won’t change.
There’s nothing too elaborate about Johnny’s — the menu, recipes and atmosphere have stayed the same since it first opened some 30 years ago.
Now, Tharpe and Judy Ward, who’ve owned it since 1994, are passing it on to their nephew, Zack Ivey, who’s been immersed in the business for the last 15 years.
“He's been a partner in the business for a long time, so you're not going to see any change down here. It's just kind of like he's pushing me on out,” Tharpe Ward said, laughing while sitting back in one of the restaurant’s chairs.
The smell of meat being smoked outside is in the air almost constantly around Johnny’s. When you drive by late at night, you can smell it. And when you’re sitting inside, chowing down on a sandwich and gulping down a sweet tea, you can definitely smell it.
Ivey said the first thing he remembers learning at Johnny’s — apart from how to work the dishwasher — was how to work with the pork.
“It was picking and pulling the hams,” Ivey said. “Learning how to pick the fat out of them and stuff that we don't want to serve.”
That same thing he learned back then is what he still does today. Little has changed — not even the menu or recipes — from when Johnny’s first opened. And as Ivey takes over, it will continue to stay the same.
“We do what we do every day and make it consistent, make it good, taste it, love it,” Ward said. “Everything's special. Everything we do is special. From making the stew and stirring it right, from making the slaw and mixing it right, it's all got to be done right. And that's why we're here in the morning, for all the prep work to make sure everything is done the way it's supposed to be.” And after everything is prepped, it’s like well oiled machine behind the counter. The order comes in, it’s shouted back and the work begins.
There’s someone manning the stew, slaw and fries, someone else takes care of the drinks. Another person is making the sandwiches or plates and a few others help to make sure things stay stocked.
Ivey said his go-to meal is “chopped pork on a sandwich, add slaw.” And he knows it’s good because he’s often the one making sure the hams on the smoker are done the right way.
“We put them on at six in the morning and they come off at five in the afternoon,” Ivey said, “Then we put more hams on and that following morning, we pick them, pull them, get all the fat out that people don't want to eat. Then we basically heat it up, serve it and it's good to go.”
It’s a lean barbecue they serve at Johnny’s, but Ward promises “it’s still real moist.”
Ivey is proud of the stew, too. The brunswick stew served at Johnny’s has pork, beef and chicken in it, along with all the typical vegetables you’d expect: corn, potatoes, tomatoes and more.
“We make it thick,” Ivey said. “There's a lot of meat in it. And we keep it consistent. The same way all the time.”
And that’s what keeps people coming back time and again. It’s not unusual to see the line backed up to the door.
And it’s not unusual to see Gary Elliott in that line. He’s been coming to Johnny’s since Johnny and Deborah Mallard owned it before the Wards.
“Chopped pork sandwich, fries and a sweet tea,” Elliott said while sitting in a booth in the back corner of the restaurant. “I’ve been eating it for years, so it’s kind of my go-to.”
Every once in a while, he’ll switch things up and get the smoked wings, but it’s usually the sandwich he can’t pass up
“I just love it,” Elliott said. “It’s kind of like I’m addicted to it in a way. I don’t know, I love the pork. I like the taste of it and I like the sauces and all that stuff. It’s just a good sandwich. It’s nothing fancy, not expensive.”
It’s the same taste today as it was when he first started coming all those years ago. And as Ivey moves into his new role as owner, that’s not going to change.
“Everything is staying the same way it's always been,” Ivey said. “Ain’t broke, don't fix it.”