Step inside the little building behind Johnny’s BBQ and you’ll find yourself squinting through a dense, hickory-flavored fog. There’s a rotisserie oven with chicken wings that go for $1 a piece. There’s a smoker the size of a sedan with 20 hams sizzling away.
Owner Tharpe Ward uses hickory wood to slow-cook pork for the same reason he doesn’t mess around with the establishment’s age-old recipe for sauce: Consistency is the name of the game.
Matter of fact, Ward says, the only change in more than two decades is they used to keep the smoker inside the main building. But folks weren’t too keen on that.
“It was too much,” Ward said, shaking his head. “Customers would eat here for lunch with all the smoke, and they’d go back to work smelling like chopped pork.”
Located at 1710 Cleveland Highway,the restaurant itself is more than 25 years old, but Ward and wife Judy this year celebrate 20 years owning and managing the business. It’s been a good run, Ward said.
“We’ve got customers who come here two or three times a week,” Ward said. “Some of them have been coming here for a long, long time.”
Emory Martin of Gainesville has been eating lunch at Johnny’s since the Wards took over in 1995. While visiting Friday afternoon, Martin eased up to the counter and asked for some chicken wings.
“There he is. There’s my wingman,” Ward joked as he rang up the order.
Martin smiled and grabbed a handful of napkins. When asked what makes the wings at Johnny’s so good, he shrugged.
“They’re so good you don’t need no sauce,” Martin said, arms akimbo. “They’re just real good.”
Customer Clay Pilgrim of Gainesville is also partial to the rotisserie wings. He showed up Friday with wife, Lindsey, to devour some spit-roasted poultry.
“They’ve got the best wings around,” Pilgrim said.
Others prefer the chopped pork, like David and Pat Stelts of Rome. The couple visits the Hall County area from time to time, and when they do you better believe they’re going to stop at Johnny’s.
“Good flavor, good sauce, good pork,” said David Stelts. “I just like pork, period. And this is second to none.”
That’s because they don’t mess with the winning formula, Ward said.
“People will stop and tell me, ‘Y’all’s barbecue is always good. It’s consistent,’” Ward said. “I think that’s because me and my crew, we’ve been doing this a long time. We don’t have to tell each other what needs to be done. We just know what to do, and we do it.”
Ward said that before the night crew leaves every evening, they’ll place anywhere between 12 and 24 hams in the smoker for overnight slow cooking.
“In the morning, we take them all off,” he said. “We pull ’em. We pick ’em. It’s just a routine. It’s a consistent operation, and it just works.”
What about the flavor?
“Everybody has their own taste for barbecue,” he said. “I’ve been told a lot of people say mine’s like North Carolina-style, because we smoke hams instead of the Boston Butts.”
He said they always use hickory wood in the smoker because it’s the best flavor, and “that’s a kind of wood I can get ahold of consistently. A lot of people, they like to use pecan or apple wood and other types, but you can’t always get those all the time. I can get hickory pretty much all the time.”
Their secret sauce is also a big part of the attraction, said Emory “Wingman” Martin.
While waiting for lunch Friday afternoon, he pointed toward an array of nondescript squeeze bottles on a nearby dining table. “That one there, the one with the yellow lid,” Martin said. “That’s the only one you need. That’s good sauce.”
The secret sauce recipe comes from the original owners, John and Debra Mallard, who opened the business in the 1980s.
Ward said business has grown every year since they bought it.
“I’ve been blessed with good help,” he said. “I’ve just enjoyed every minute of it. Not many people can say that about their job. People says to me, ‘oh man, you’ve got to get up every morning at 6 o’clock?’ But, I love it.”
Added Ward: “We get down here early in the morning. We drink coffee and talk. We pull and pick hams. I have friends who will drop by and visit with us. We have a good time here. It’s just been great.”