Welcome to The Food Experience: an ongoing conversation on food, culture, and passion. Featuring Muna Coterie chefs, catering companies, bakers, and special guests from the culinary world.
Located in Dallas, Texas, Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que is a family-owned and operated restaurant serving delicious home-cooked meals and mouth-watering BBQ since 1976.
The origin of Smokey John’s begins in the 1970s when “Smokey” John Reaves, a big-hearted entrepreneur, loving father, and devoted husband started a construction and roofing business in Dallas. To thank people for their business, he started giving customers a smoked turkey leg or a smoked ham.
Eventually, people started asking for turkeys and hams more than roofing. By 1976, “Big John’s” was in business. Soon after, the kitchen had a smoke out and a customer jokingly suggested the restaurant be called “Smokey John’s.”
The name stuck! And Smokey John’s BBQ was born!
Food-wise, Smokey John’s is known for their juicy turkey legs, smoked ribs, crispy crazy corn, and brisket brittle (a take on the classic peanut brittle candy with crispy brisket inside). At its core, however, Smokey John’s is about so much more than barbecue.
Food, Faith, and Family are the key ingredients of their business.
After John Reaves’ passing in 2019, his sons Juan and Brent Reaves (along with their sister Yulise Reaves Waters as their legal consultant) strive to carry on his legacy.
As co-owners and managers of the day-to-day operations, Juan and Brent have continued to grow and expand the family business. With their team, they developed Smokey John’s mission statement, “Nourishing our community through the joy of food, the strength of faith, and the spirit of family,” to preserve the community their parents’ fostered.
The company’s lasting foundation of food, faith, and family resonates with customers. These values (along with their delicious food!) transcend boundaries, driving Smokey John’s to be one of the top BBQ joints in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and beyond.
The dynamic duo HAS appeared on numerous TV shows and networks.
These include appearances on the Food Network, the Cooking Channel, A&E’s Deep Fried Dynasty, Good Morning America’s United States of BBQ Competition, and more! They are also passionate about uplifting their community and have done countless educational campaigns, including Smokey John’s Shoe Box Lunches, this year honoring Black Media Pioneers during Black History Month. The hardworking and hilarious duo has also recently debuted #ThePrettyFunnyPodcast on Smokey John’s YouTube channel. The sky is truly the limit for these two!
Keep reading below for our exclusive interview with Juan and Brent Reaves on everything Smokey John’s BBQ, their individual journeys into the culinary world, and how they are continuing their father’s legacy today.
- Series: The Food Experience
- Featured Company: Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que (Dallas, TX)
- Date of Interview: February 15, 2023
The early days of Smokey John’s BBQ...
Growing up in the restaurant industry has its perks: great food, fun events, and collecting tips are just a few highlights. Of course, there’s hard work involved, too! But in Juan and Brent’s case, their earliest memories of the family business are happy ones.
Seven years older, Juan’s earliest recollections of Smokey John’s started at around five years old. He actually remembers the original location of the family business.
It was basically a big empty space. And our dad was like, ‘yeah, we’re gonna make this a restaurant.’ At the time, I didn’t see it. But Dad was one of those larger-than-life characters. It didn’t take long for him to get a lot of people to start showing up.”– Juan Reaves
Juan’s first time officially being on the books was around the fourth grade.
“I was trying to buy a bicycle that summer,” Juan recalls, smiling. “Well, I had a bike… but I wanted to upgrade to the 10-speed.”
Working all summer long, he admits: “That was one of the greatest summers of my life. Not only did I earn enough money to buy my 10-speed, but I also got to see the Jackson Five perform because Dad was friends with the promotor. Since I was an employee at the restaurant, I got a ticket to see the concert.”
Famous faces frequenting Smokey John’s became an exciting norm.
Juan shares, “Dad had some famous people popping in and after a while, he became really good friends with Harvey Martin who played for the Dallas Cowboys. They started being not just customer and proprietor, but really good friends and eventually, Harvey invested and became a partner. Dad got to know all the cowboys from the seventies and eighties so we kind of grew up a big Dallas Cowboy family.”
It’s a family thang…
Brent’s early memories of Big John’s are filled with video games like Pac-Man and the first-time-thrills of making money.
“We had this tabletop Pac-Man game in the restaurant,” Brent shares. “I would always ask Dad for quarters and then blow the money within minutes.”
One day, tired of giving little Brent endless quarters, his Dad decided to put him to work. He asked Brent to go get a pitcher of water and instructed: “When the glasses get half full at the table, fill ’em up. Never let anybody’s glass get under half full.”
So he did. And after the customers finished, they would leave $2 or $3 sitting on the table. Only 6 years old at the time, receiving his first tips was a memorable experience.
Brent recalls, “I saw the money, grabbed it, and ran to Dad. I said, ‘Hey, they left their money.’ And he’s like, ‘No son, that’s a tip. Whenever you give service to people and it’s good service, they’ll leave money for you.'”
After that, he never had to ask for Pac-Man money again.
The instant gratification of the restaurant business was exciting.”– Brent Reaves
Discovering a love for cooking…
Growing up in the food industry, one might assume a love for cooking is only natural. However, this isn’t always the case.
Brent initially hated cooking.
“I started cooking early,” he says. “We would come home from church and Dad would make me cook cornbread or whatever. This was at six or seven years old. So earlier on I kind of hated cooking.”
Brent’s perception started to change as he got older. Growing up watching Julia Childs, the Frugal Gourmet, and folks cooking on the KERA Create channel, his interest in cooking was piqued. However, it wasn’t until college that his newfound “love” for cooking came into play.
“What I found out at UNT was that the way to a woman’s heart was through good cooking,” Brent explains coyly. “And I would listen to all these girls and they’d be so blown away by guys that could cook. So I really started honing my skills.”
His suave albeit amusing reason for getting into cooking paid off. He perfected many dishes, including a crowd-favorite, shrimp scampi, and won hearts along the way.
I truly fell in love with cooking, food, and the depth of flavors.”– Brent Reaves
In comparison, Juan admits his journey & love of cooking “wasn’t so alluring.”
“I lived on campus all through college,” Juan says, “so I didn’t have to cook. I always had a meal plan.”
By his senior year, Juan spent a semester in New York and was living in a flat with 40 other students. “There were two kitchens. I had work study in college, but in New York, I was working at NBC and I didn’t have a lot of cash.”
With his cash flow low and expenses in New York exorbitantly high, he started experimenting and dabbling in the kitchen.
I learned to really start cooking, to be creative with the cheaper items, whatever I could find. And I started exploring. Then once I graduated and moved to Switzerland, I learned to eat all sorts of cuisines.”– Juan Reaves
Growing up, Juan remembers eating a lot of Chinese food. “Obviously barbecue and Mexican food, too,” he adds, “but that was pretty much the extent of it.”
As he explored Europe, his palette expanded. He also started using new and different ingredients that were available to him.
“I found that I enjoyed creating meals, whatever I could come up with.” And of course, if he had a craving for something more traditional, Mom and Dad were only a phone call away.
Returning to the family business…
While Juan and Brent both went off to college and were starting their own lives, the family business was always lingering at the back of their minds. A return to Smokey John’s was never out of the question. It was only a matter of when.
For instance, no matter where he was, Juan was always keeping tabs on the culinary world.
“I used to read a lot,” he says. “We’d go get our haircut and we’d stay at the barbershop for hours. I would take Adweek or whatever publications Dad would get in the mail and I would read ’em.”
As he read up on fast food chains like Arby’s, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s, Juan took note of how they were expanding, opening new locations, and building their brands. This early interest inspired him to study marketing in college and for 6 years he promoted major companies, including the NBA. In spite of his impressive marketing portfolio, he never imagined he and Brent would one day take over the family business.
I thought, well at some point I’ll bring my marketing experience and get involved with Smokey John’s and kind of work my way up. Little did I know that was not the real plan. The real plan was that Brent and I were gonna build it into something.”– Juan Reaves
Juan’s defining moment to return to Smokey John’s BBQ was when he was living in Jersey.
“I had switched from working with the NBA and all the other companies I was working with to another smaller agency. I was living just outside of New York City and I was driving to work 40 minutes a day West. On those drives, I had a lot of time to think, a lot of time to pray, a lot of time to listen to inspirational radio. And I just realized that I needed to come back to Dallas and start my career here.”
After calling his dad and expressing interest to return to the family business, his dad was thrilled! The Smokey John’s team welcomed Juan back into the restaurant with excitement and open arms.
When Brent (who was still in college at the time) got a call from Juan saying he was coming back to the family business, He took it as a sign.
“I was just enjoying North Texas,” Brent admits, with a mischievous grin. “I wasn’t really trying to graduate anytime soon just because it was such a great time. Taking only one or two classes and every once in a while actually showing up on test day. Campus life was great.”
But when Juan called him and said he was coming back to the restaurant, Brent thought to himself: “Oh shoot, if you’re coming back to the business, we could do this together.”
At the time, Brent was already studying hotel and restaurant management. It was only logical he would return to the family business at some point. He just needed to graduate.
“I doubled up all my classes,” he says. “I took the mini-semesters and summer semesters, and I did my internship. All of it was done in about 11 months and I graduated the next year.”
Brothers in business…
On working together, people often ask if they fight a lot. But for these two, there seems to be a lot more laughter and good times than anything else.
We believe in work hard, play hard.”– Juan Reaves
In spite of this mentality, when they returned to the family business (especially with their 7-year age gap), there was an important “getting to know each other again” process.
Juan recalls, “The first few years working together we lived together, just to get to know each other again as adults because it wasn’t me hanging him over the staircase torturing him, my little brother anymore.”
“God, he used to do that all the time,” Brent adds. “It wasn’t fair. He’s seven years older, seven years stronger, seven years smarter. It was just a bad deal.”
While they tease each other about their childhood, as business partners today, they have certainly found their stride in the Food industry.
One of their biggest Smokey John’s events to date is their participation in the Texas State Fair. The larger-than-life event brings thousands of foodies and fair-goers together for a 24-day-long celebration of education, agriculture, family, fun, and great food, of course!
Making up a third of their business with 6 locations on the fairgrounds, the Texas State Fair is a major component of their company. It also allows them to be creative and challenge each other to think outside the box — especially when it comes to the Big Tex Choice Awards!
In 2016, their Fried Jell-O® won “Best Taste” and in 2022, their Ultimate Brookie Monster was a semi-finalist in the sweets category. Juan shares, “The Fried Jell-O® was one of the hardest, most creative deals we’ve done. But those projects are always fun.”
Our biggest problem is we can’t make anything simple. We always make it hard because we’re trying to top ourselves.”– Juan Reaves
The “Deep Fried Dynasty” experience…
With Juan and Brent’s award-winning creations at the Texas State Fair capturing the stomachs of loyal fairgoers, their appearances on A&E’s show, “Deep Fried Dynasty,” further catapulted Smokey John’s BBQ into the limelight.
The A&E series follows several family-run, small businesses at the State Fair of Texas, capturing all the big personalities, competition, and greasy foods behind the scenes. When they were first approached for the show, they truly didn’t know what to expect.
Juan remembers when they started filming: “They said, ‘yeah, we’ll probably have you in a couple of episodes.’ And we’re like, ‘oh great.’ We ended up being in 7 out of 13!”
Being mic’d up for 80% of the day and followed around by camera crews was new territory for them. But it was a great experience.
Little did they know, the series would grow their business immensely.
Brent shares, “What was interesting for us is, we do the first year, and we didn’t realize how many people actually watched this show.”
After it aired, they were shocked by the response.
We’d have fans flying into Dallas to go to the state fair to try the Turkey leg just cause they had been watching the show.”– Brent Reaves
Shoebox Lunch Campaign: Honoring Black Media Pioneers…
Always seeking ways to give back and uplift their community, Juan and Brent launched their first Shoebox Lunch Campaign during Black History Month in February 2020.
The concept: serving a delicious Smokey John’s lunch with a side of Black history.
“The Shoebox Lunch has been a huge surprise,” Juan says. “I mean the first year we did it, we had no idea it was going to be that popular and that people were going to be that interested.”
Each year, the Shoebox Lunch campaign has continued to grow in popularity.
From honoring Black Entrepreneurs and emphasizing the importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, they continue to share as much as they can to highlight the Black community.
This year, Smokey John’s BBQ honored past & PRESENT Black Media Pioneers in the DFW area.
We’ve been very blessed and fortunate to have a lot of opportunities to be on television both nationally and locally. And we’re big fans of broadcasting. So we thought, how great would it be for us to say a big thank you to the Black media that came before us and the current ones for their representation and for what they’re doing in the community.”– Juan Reaves
These people were a part of our lives growing up. We know that it meant a lot to see faces that are familiar to you, to hear them tell your story, and to have some of the stories that would never be told if it weren’t for those people having those positions.”– Juan Reaves
Let’s talk #ThePrettyFunnyPodcast…
The name says it all. Brent (a.k.a “Pretty”) and Juan (a.k.a “Funny”) started the idea for their Pretty Funny Podcast during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to continue to connect and engage with their customers.
We wanted to figure out a way to really connect with our customer base. So we went live every day for about 9 to 10 months on Facebook and Instagram. Our whole thing was to inspire hope and help people deal with the unfortunate circumstances that we were dealing with during those times.”– Brent Reaves
Their podcast’s Title is a humorous play on words.
As Juan explains it, it all started with their customers: “Somewhere along the way, someone was always saying how handsome Brent was, and he’s so pretty. And so, from time to time, I might make a little jab, maybe say something funny. Before we knew it they were calling us ‘pretty funny.'”
Those early Facebook and Instagram Live sessions not only created a bigger Smokey John’s following but also strengthened its sense of community.
Juan shares, “We literally were on five to six nights a week. We even got to the point where we had theme nights.”
Some of those themes included Throwback Thursday where they’d tell old stories about each other or talk about nostalgic TV shows. They had Food Fridays where they did live cooking demos or simply chatted about what they were going to eat for dinner.
“We did all these different things and people were engaging and the following was picking up,” Juan says. “It was a lot of fun.”
As Juan and Brent continued to build other parts of the business, such as Smokey John’s branded items, they realized a podcast could be beneficial to their marketing strategy.
Especially with their growing presence on TV, more folks beyond the DFW area were looking to bring a taste of Smokey John’s BBQ into their homes.
Brent recalls, “We were on Good Morning America and people were talking about us. But people beyond Dallas can’t go to a restaurant near them and get our food. Instead, they would order our barbecue sauce or barbecue rub and have it shipped to them. So we were like, man, if we start doing this podcast, we could really start creating our own sponsorship.”
It wasn’t until a producer of A&E’s “Deep Fried Dynasty” literally laughed out loud at the idea that they finally took the leap.
The “Pretty Funny” podcast officially aired on February 3rd, 2023, at 8 PM CST on Smokey John’s official YouTube Channel. Their lighthearted debut show was ASMR-themed and officially announced the title of their podcast.
I told them I didn’t think we’d get a hundred views within the first month and I think we had a hundred views in two days.”– Juan Reaves
In honor of Black History Month and continuing to highlight Black Media Pioneers, their first special guest on Episode 2 was local Dallas TV Personality, Singer, and Actress, Yolonda Williams. Talking about everything from her family to her credit union voice and outstanding entertainment resume, the episode was “a hoot.”
- Brent’s dream interview: Oprah & Dave Chapelle
- Juan’s dream interview: Chris Rock & Dan Rather
Advice for restaurant owners trying to build their own brand in the food industry…
Figure out who you are as a business. You don’t need to be like everybody else. There’s a guy that I follow a lot, his name is Matthew Kelly, and he always says, “Don’t be a second-rate version of someone else. Be a first-rate version of yourself.” And I think that’s what we’ve done as a business.”– Juan Reaves
Get outside of the four walls of your establishment. You need to get out and meet everybody in your community. One of the things that I think I’ve personally learned is that people want an invitation whether they ask for it or not. And when they get an invitation, they feel welcomed before they get there.”– Brent Reaves
In everything they do, Juan and Brent recall the values they grew up with: food, faith, and family. These three principles were at the center of their childhood and continue to motivate them today.
After chatting over Zoom, one can clearly see these values embodied in real-time. Shown in not only words but actions, Smokey John’s BBQ will continue to grow and thrive for years to come.
Their parents would be proud to know the legacy of Smokey John’s BBQ is in the hands of two extraordinarily capable, kind, and sincerely good humans. That is all anyone can really ask for.
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