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Our Roots

Joe’s Real BBQ started as an idea born in 1995. At that time, Joe Johnston and Tim Peelen were finishing up their employment contracts with The Coffee Plantation, a local chain of coffeehouses they had founded some seven years earlier and sold in 1993. During this period, they helped the new company roll out almost twenty new stores, some of which were in Texas. Joe was in charge of building the new stores and so he visited Texas quite often. Being a food-lover, he sought out some local specialties and barbecue was high on the list.

He visited very old barbecue joints, modern chain barbecue restaurants, and everything in between. Already thinking about what to do next after the coffee business, the idea of building a barbecue business intrigued him. He also thought of doing a farm-based restaurant on the family farm, but considered it too far out of town. Joe started to analyze different service systems, cooking methods, and décor at the barbecue restaurants he visited. At this point, he began to develop a business plan for a barbecue restaurant in Gilbert, which is his hometown.

The barbecue places he liked best were always in long brick buildings in the old downtown of some small Texas town. Filled with character, they were usually decorated in a way that expressed pride in the State of Texas. One day, while Joe was driving north on Gilbert Road, HE SAW IT. Although he had passed the intersection of Page and Gilbert Roads many times since he was a kid, he saw for the first time that the building at 301 N. Gilbert Road was the ideal barbecue building. At the time it was a church and the front was covered mainly with plywood, but the potential was unmistakable. He spoke with the pastor of the church and they were willing to sell, as they wanted to grow.

About this time, Joe showed the business plan to his old partner from The Coffee Plantation. Tim was involved with a family business, but got excited about the prospects of the barbecue. He decided to partner with Joe in the new venture. They were both pleased to be able to work together, again. Tim’s expertise is in restaurant operations and foods. A couple of visits to Texas to share the experiences at Joe’s favorite barbecue places helped to seal the vision. Joe now began developing the building and its décor, while Tim started working through the operating systems for the restaurant. They jointly worked on recipe development and together came up with the famous Joe’s Real BBQ sauce.

It was decided that the restaurant would be set in the 1940’s time frame and that the décor would honor Arizona, particularly the Gilbert area, during that period. The building was built in 1929 as a Safeway Pay’n’Takit. As much of the existing structure as possible was to be retained. An animated neon sign, the first built in the Phoenix area in several decades, was added to the corner of the building. A restored 1948 John Deere tractor was rolled into the building when the plywood storefront was removed. The most notable addition to the building was the commissioning of a mural on the south wall. The mural commemorates the agricultural heritage of the area and hard work that went into producing crops. Joel Coplin painted the original, which is 1/7 scale (now at the Johnston home), and Pete Martinez transferred it onto the wall. The mural, entitled “The Fruit of Our Labor”, was completed in ten weeks.

Meanwhile, the decision was made to use Oyler pits to cook the meat. They use only wood to cook the meat and were the smoker of choice at our favorite Texas barbecue restaurants. We also chose pecan wood, as it gives fine flavor to the meat and is a renewable, Arizona grown wood. Tim continued to work on the recipes and scaling them up for the restaurant. He also was working on how we would staff the place. We all enjoyed tasting the test recipes. Some came from books, others were from family recipes. For instance, the homemade applesauce recipe came from Tim’s mother.

The building and food were coming along well towards the end of 1997. Tim suggested that we add a partner, his brother Tad. Tad was working for American Airlines at their corporate headquarters in Dallas. Thankfully, Tad decided to join the team and bring his considerable management experience to the restaurant. Tad was able to start at Joe’s Real BBQ a few weeks before opening day. He and Tim worked together to hire and train the starting crew. Tad helped set up all of our employment related systems as well as all main office systems. In mid-January of 1998, we had a number of pre-opening parties to promote the business and break in the staff.

On January 20, 1998, Joe’s Real BBQ opened for business. On our first day, we served over 1,000 customers and business stayed very strong. We were all scrambling and tired, but were able to slowly get organized and stabilize the business. Since that time, we have tried to be true to the motto of Joe’s Real BBQ, which is “Clean, Delicious, and Friendly.” There have been a few changes over time – the original “retail market” became an ice cream stand and, later, additional seating, while an additional covered patio was added to the north. Recently, a third Oyler pit was added to meet our increased volume. We discontinued the beloved (but rarely ordered) Turkey Jalapeño Sausage and added the popular Mac’n’Cheese (Tim’s special recipe). Free lunch in May was started in 2000 and expanded to free lunch and dinner a couple of years later.

Joe’s continues to be a family owned and operated restaurant. We all live in Gilbert and are proud to be able to be a part of this growing community.

The Partners

Joe Johnston

Joe Johnston

Joe grew up on a farm in Gilbert, AZ. In fact, the family’s home is now Joe’s Farm Grill! While he did work on the farm as kid, engineering and design were his primary interests. Joe attended Stanford University and has a BS Electrical Engineering, BS Mechanical Engineering, and MS Industrial Engineering. He worked in engineering for seven years, primarily in product design.

Meanwhile, he became friends with Tim Peelen. In 1989, they made a hobby of coffee roasting into a business named The Coffee Plantation. Starting with one coffeehouse in Tempe, AZ, The Coffee Plantation became exceedingly popular. It featured coffee roasted on premises, espresso drinks, baked goods and a kitchen menu. By 1992, the original Tempe store served 1 million people during the year! The two grew the chain to four stores and roasting plant and sold the company to Second Cup (Canada) in 1993. Joe continued on until 1995 doing site selection, real estate, and store design as the new company grew to nearly 20 units.

While building Coffee Plantation stores in Texas, he became interested in barbecue. Joe found a building in downtown Gilbert, AZ (built in 1929) that seemed perfect for a barbecue restaurant. He bought the place and began the design work. Shortly thereafter, Tim Peelen joined the team and a bit later Tim’s brother, Tad, joined the company, as well. Joe’s Real BBQ opened in 1998. The restaurant features wood-smoked meats and scratch, house-made sides, and desserts. The business started very strong and has continued to build in volume to this day.

Joe then began working on the development of the family farm into a community known as Agritopia®. He worked with land planners, attorneys, designers, and a homebuilder to create a neo-traditional community that centers on a core of urban agriculture. The residential portion began construction in 2001 and is completed. The community has been featured in many publications and is a very desirable place to live. The commercial portion includes the old homestead area.

Within the homestead area is the family home built in 1967. Joe helped design the conversion of the home into Joe’s Farm Grill and develop the concept for the restaurant. It is essentially a burger stand taken to the next level with a great “common foods” menu, enhanced flavor profiles, and local ingredients (vegetables are grown right at Agritopia® for many items). The restaurant opened in 2006. Joe’s Farm Grill has been featured on Food Network’s® Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives and is a very popular restaurant both locally and Valley-wide.

In 2008, Joe helped design and develop Liberty Market in a vintage building across from Joe’s Real BBQ. Liberty Market is a multi-station restaurant concept in a fast casual format. While opening into one of the worst economic times in recent memory, it has been able to grow into a profitable and vibrant place. Joe is currently working on Agritopia® EpiCenter, a mixed-use, food-focused commercial center.

Tad Peelen

Tad Peelen

Tad grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona and started his restaurant career in the 1970’s at Dale Anderson’s legendary Other Place restaurant. After spending many years there, Tad moved to Dallas, Texas and enjoyed a rewarding career with American Airlines. Before retiring, he managed various departments, was involved in human resources, collective bargaining, information technology and (of course) food service. Traveling constantly for business and pleasure brought with it the ability to enjoy culinary fare across the globe and piqued his interest in returning to the food service business.

After obtaining his MS in Organizational Communication from Texas Christian University, an opportunity to return to the restaurant business came to light, and a second career was born. He partnered with Joe Johnston and his brother Tim to open Joe’s Real BBQ in 1998. He brought his computer and human resource background to bear on systems development, and ensured that the single unit had chain-like efficiencies while retaining the charm and appeal deserving of a restaurant housed in a 1929 historic landmark building. Tad still oversees daily operations at the downtown Gilbert, Arizona award-winning institution.

Buoyed by the success of what locals affectionately call “The BBQ,” he teamed with his Partners to open Joe’s Farm Grill in Gilbert, Arizona in 2006. Set in the bucolic Agritopia® community, this institution quickly gained national acclaim and a feature on the Food Network’s® Diners Drive-ins and Dives with host Guy Fieri.

Committed to community service and the arts, Tad has served on the Town of Gilbert’s Economic Development Advisory Board, and as Board President of Gilbert Cares. He is a graduate of the Gilbert Leadership Program, a Founding Board Member of Gilbert Talks, a Board Member of the Phoenix Boys Choir and works with the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce.

Tim Peelen

Tim Peelen

Tim moved to Arizona with his family in 1973, attended high school in Scottsdale, and earned a degree in History from the University of Arizona. It was while working in various restaurants during high school and college that he discovered his penchant for the food service industry.

Upon graduation, he worked in the educational publishing business as a curriculum developer and marketing manager until his friendship with Joe Johnston developed into an entrepreneurial partnership of shared passions and values and complementary skills and talents. Joe and Tim developed and operated The Coffee Plantation, a coffeehouse and roasting concept that had high-volume locations in Tempe, Scottsdale, and Phoenix. After selling the business to a large Canadian coffee company, Tim stayed on for two years to oversee operations and training for the development of multiple Coffee Plantations in Arizona, Texas, and California.

The next chapter of his food service career found Tim again partnering with Joe, and now his brother Tad, in Joe’s Real BBQ -- a historic-Arizona themed BBQ concept in downtown Gilbert. “Joe’s” has enjoyed a 13-year run as an award-winning, iconic East Valley dining destination, and continues to thrive.

In 2006, the partners opened Joe’s Farm Grill, a retro-futuristic burger stand featuring a diverse menu and grown-on-site produce. Tim brought his expertise and passion for menu concept and recipe development to the “Grill,” where he continues to oversee daily operations. Joe’s Farm Grill has joined Joe’s Real BBQ as a Gilbert dining institution, having garnered much local and national acclaim.

Tim and wife of 31 years, Kim, enjoy travel and a myriad of activities with their four children. He is actively involved in church leadership, and continues to be engaged in outreach activities to the hungry and homeless.

The Team

Big D was our very first employee, starting before we opened in 1997

Amy jumped aboard in 2012

Julie joined us in 2012

Paul (a.k.a. Chip) joined us in 2006

Bill joined the team in 2011

Jared Vint joined us in 2013

14 Comments

  • Staci Burk

    Thanks for your outstanding contribution to Gilbert! The food there is wonderful and you bring such a warm and welcoming atmosphere to the downtown area. Keep up the great work.

    June 5th, 2011 at 12:52 pm
  • Paul Mckeen

    I am a real fan of outstanding food and exquisite service. I grew up in the restaurant business and consider myself knowledgeable.

    Joe’s Real Bar B Q and Joe’s Farm Grill are two of the most outstanding eating places in the Valley. I have yet to have a meal that wasn’t outstanding.

    I heartily recommend Joe’s to everyone. Once you try it…you”ll be hooked!

    March 12th, 2013 at 5:48 pm
  • Kathy Kelley

    Live in the mtns of Overgaard Az, but lived in the valley all of my life. Great grandparents came to Gilbert on February 1st, 1919 and farmed there. Little house in town is still standing off of Main St on Park I think is the name of that street. My family has quite a few things in the Old school Gilbert Museum. An online friend in Tenn, mentioned the name of your restaurant and since we come to San Tan Valley quite a few times a year , just wanted to say Hello and stop in. Your food comes highly recommended. Thanks for the history also!

    April 29th, 2013 at 1:34 pm
  • Tamara

    Is Tim the only one with a family? The food is good however, not very family oriented. Waldo’s, in Mesa, offers free kids meals. Would this ever be an option? My kids are older but, Gilbert is known for kids and families.

    August 27th, 2013 at 4:35 pm
  • Thanks for taking time to read and to comment. We all have families, all of whom have worked at one or both of the restaurants over the span of the last 16 years. Having been named “Best Place to take your Family” by Phoenix Magazine, best family-friendly dining by others, we’re a bit confused as to how one could conclude we’re not family friendly if they had dined with us. The average ticket at the restaurant you mention is considerably higher than ours, and their kid meals per their menu are exactly the same price as ours. Add to that our 1929 welcoming nostalgic decor, a John Deere tractor in the dining room, hats for the kids, the picnic park, place for kids to run and play… All that said, we hope you and your family come enjoy all we have to offer on a regular basis!

    August 27th, 2013 at 6:40 pm
  • Valerie

    …This Building was a deli that caught fire, before Yall opened up.

    November 27th, 2013 at 1:36 am
  • Judith Klages

    Just had the best meal ever when Joe’s catered a dinner at Citrus Gardens in Mesa

    February 26th, 2014 at 11:30 pm
  • Kelsi

    Great food. My family frequents there, especially for birthdays since the kids can all play outside. I was there the other day… bought 2 kids meals and I got a side (wasn’t too hungry but had to feed the kids), and spent almost $20. That is insane; it’s hard to go here on the average budget. Could get served in a restaurant and ditch the wait in lines for similar prices, if not less. Just a thought! Not that you guys need more business, but if the meals were a tad cheaper for kids, that would be great! Or, include the drink for their meals? I know I’m not the only one who has thought this, and we will continue coming, just not as often as we’d like, hence the mention…

    June 3rd, 2014 at 9:47 am
  • Greg Carloni

    This is the best BBQ this side if anywhere! Every type of meat is fantastic, the sides amazing and the potato is huge and a great substitution if you are tired if meat! 5 stars

    September 6th, 2014 at 3:39 pm
  • marsha rosenkrans

    Loved the food…feeling of family…great atmosphere…seems like home…only in the desert! Louisiana/Texas been looking for BBQ like back home! thanks…Joe”s Farm Grill and Joe’s Real BBQ

    October 22nd, 2014 at 7:34 pm
  • Thanks for taking time to pass on your kind comments! So glad to have you as a customer!

    October 22nd, 2014 at 7:38 pm
  • scott

    Nice… map for us out-of-towners? Guess I need to just go there.

    October 23rd, 2014 at 4:46 pm
  • Scott… there’s a map bottom right of the page. Here’s the link for you. Hope to see you soon! https://www.google.com/maps/place/Joe%27s+Real+BBQ/@33.35525,-111.789416,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x872ba916e1d93213:0x195a0272db12c0?hl=en

    October 23rd, 2014 at 4:48 pm
  • Darlene McGeary

    Catered our wedding at Shenandoah Mill on 11-26-14. Food was not only affordable but delicious as well:-) Been coming here for years as it’s one of our favorite places to eat out. Thanks for the exceptional experience :-)

    December 16th, 2014 at 12:07 pm

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