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.