Talking Bono's with Josh Martino
1. Tell us about Bono’s Bar-B-Q.
We are a local, family run barbecue business. We were founded in Jacksonville in 1949, so this is our 65th anniversary year. What we do is traditional, Southern, pit-based barbecue, which is the low and slow method, from raw to cooked. We smoke our meat anywhere from 4 to 20 hours, depending on what we are cooking. After smoking, we finish our meat on a live pit in front of everybody in the dining room and then we cut it to order. When you order your lunch or dinner we take the whole piece of meat off the pit, cut what you need and then we put the meat right back up on top of the fire. At Bono’s we do things the old fashioned way, using the finest products we can buy from all over the country. We don’t do boil-in-bag barbecue, we don’t do deli-sliced barbecue, and we’re not scooping your order from a steam table.
What I tell people is that if you look up the best barbecue joints in America you are going to find the same places on most of your search engines and they have two things in common. One of them is that they are pit barbecues – they have a real live fire pit in their restaurant. Cooking with a pit comes with a very high degree of difficulty because you're dealing with a fire that can go from 200° to 600° in a matter of five minutes, along with human error, and so many other variables that you don't have to worry about when you are using deli meats or a boiled bag, lean-cuisine style barbecue. The second thing the best barbecues have in common, in most cases, is that there is one of them. They are all fantastic and highly respected and their food is unbelievably delicious. We are the crazy people who decided to take that model and build 20 of them. One of the reasons we take such great pride in our food is that we believe we are doing it the right way, the authentic way.
2. 65 years is a long time to be in business, especially for a restaurant. Why do you think Bono’s has been successful for so long?
Bono's is one of the top 10 oldest brands of our size in America. What's allowed us to grow and what’s kept us in business for 65 years are four things: our loyal customers, our food, our dedication to quality, and our employees. We've got more than 20 employees who have been with us for over 20 years and probably 50 more who have been with us for over 10 years. We tend not to lose people. We treat everybody with respect, as part of our family. They know how important they are to us and we respect the jobs they do and that they are the outlet to our customers.
3. Has the style of Bono's been the same since 1949?
The pit method of cooking has remained the same but the specs of the meat have improved and we have added new proteins to the menu along with new menu items and new side items. We have added dry rubs and some other things have evolved and been added over the course of the years as well. When Bono’s opened in 1949 they had buttermilk on the menu. It was something very popular back then but I can't imagine eating a brisket sandwich and washing it down with a nice glass of buttermilk today. That did not make it to 2014.
Over the years we have also created new sauces from the original. Back in the day when there was one sauce it was kept piping hot, in Jack Daniels whiskey bottles over the fire, and we would pour it on everything that went out into the dining room. Lo and behold, all these years later we have four sauces, the health codes have changed and we can no longer keep them in whiskey bottles on the fire, but the recipes are the same.
4. What exactly is a barbecue pit?
It's a method of indirect heat. Every morning when our pit bosses come in to work they build a fire in our pit using the same wood we use in our smokers to smoke the food. It's like a big brick fireplace of a pretty grand size and they build a giant fire in the bottom of it. Above it are grates. We keep that fire going all day. We maintain the temperature using a hose we have near the pit. If it gets a little too hot we spray it down a little bit to keep it tempered. We smoke all our food in professional smokers in the restaurant. By finishing it off on the pit it keeps the meat really hot and adds that last layer of smokiness. It also crisps the skin up a little bit more to make it perfect.
5. What type of wood do you use in the pit?
It's blackjack oak, the same wood we've used since the very beginning.
6. Is it true that one of your pit bosses worked for Bono's for over 50 years?
Yes. Harvey Green has been a pit boss for over 50 years, although he recently retired. We still have Harvey on the payroll because he's a Jacksonville icon. It’s amazing when you think about somebody who works for you for 50 years, never misses a day of work, and who knows everybody in the building. Harvey’s back could be turned to the door when a customer walks in and he has this sixth sense and he just knows your name, your order, and he'll have it literally in front of you in 30 seconds. Harvey has been responsible for training pit bosses throughout the years who have stayed with us for decades.
7. How does somebody get to be a pit boss?
If you ask any of our pit bosses most of them started off as a dishwasher or as a fry cook and they worked their way up learning the business and slowly but surely they trained with a seasoned pit boss. It's definitely a very skilled position so it takes time. I trained at every position in the house before I got to work for Bono’s, to learn what it is to be each member of our team. While I can handle a knife very well and I can take the tickets and produce the order I'm telling you sometimes the tickets are coming in so fast I can't keep up. These guys are unbelievable with their knife skills.
A pit boss is a highly skilled position and is one of our highest paid positions in the house because it comes with so much responsibility. Pit bosses are in charge of the most expensive things we order, which is all of our proteins. They load the smoker, they season the meat – they pretty much are in charge of our proteins from raw to cooked to served. They are also our liaisons to the customers at our counters and they are putting out every single plate in the dining room. We do not have an assembly line. Every meal that needs to be prepared goes to the cutter.
8. When you say your food quality is to a high standard, what do you mean by that?
Fortunately for us, because we have so many stores, we can get really great deals. We’re buying over 1 million pounds of pork per year. We’re buying close to 600,000 or 700,000 pounds of turkey every year. If we were a single restaurant our providers would be less excited to deal with us and the pricing they could give us wouldn’t be as good. Because we have good purchasing power we’re able to buy a higher quality product. Our turkey breast, for example, is the highest quality turkey breast you can buy for barbecue. Our turkey meat is 100% white breast meat from a company in Michigan that raises and produces all their own products. They don’t do anything but turkey. A lot of turkey out there is juiced up with fillers and other starches to make it last longer and for other reasons - but that just means it’s not as good for you and it doesn’t taste as good either. We use a gluten free, low sodium product. It’s an expensive cut of turkey that we can afford because of our purchasing power and we’re able to put that on the plate for our customers instead of an inferior product. We could get a lot of stuff a lot cheaper, and we might even be able to get away serving it, but it wouldn’t be something we’d be proud of.
9. Where would you start someone on the menu who is new to Bono’s or is re-discovering Bono’s?
Our office is about 25 yards from one of our restaurants and every day that I tell myself I’m going to eat somewhere else I walk next door and eat. We have something for every taste, and no, I don’t get tired of it - I eat it literally every single day. I eat everything on the menu. When I visited my first Bono’s it was the restaurant on San Pablo. They gave me a Family Feast, which is a little bit of everything - it has some pork, sausages, turkey, ribs and some beef, along with the sides - baked beans, cole slaw, all the good stuff. I tried all the sauces and ate everything. If I was telling someone new I’d say you should try everything - and start with what you like. If you ask any loyal Bono’s customer about their favorite thing, they’ll have something that’s their go-to. They may mix it up a little but it’s going to be their go-to. It’s really cool how specific it can get. It’s almost like a Starbucks order sometimes - “I like pulled pork, outside cut, chopped fine, on garlic toast" - then they order a side of cole slaw that they end up dumping onto the sandwich - it’s fun to see how people play with our food.
10. What’s the most popular item at Bono's?
It’s our BBQ Salad, believe it or not. We’ve got a great, but simple, salad blend. It has cucumbers, tomatoes, and a little bit of cheese on top of the lettuce. Then we take any type of meat you want, right off the pit, cut it up julienne style, and put it right on top the salad. That’s our BBQ Salad. It’s that simple. Now, people will use our salad dressing, barbecue sauce, or some combination to make their own flavors. And that’s our number one selling item.
11. Is that a new thing, to have a salad as your number one seller? Is that reflective of people’s healthier eating habits?
It wasn't there in the beginning, but started somewhere in the early ‘90s and has just increased in popularity every year since then.
12. As someone who eats at Bono’s every day, what’s your favorite menu item?
I’m kind of a grazer. Everything we have in-house is phenomenal. Two years ago we switched our beef cut from a bottom round, which is a great cut of beef, but it’s very lean, which meant that if your timing during the cooking wasn’t perfect then the meat could dry out. It was delicious but challenging. When most people think about beef for barbecue they think about brisket. A few years ago I decided I needed to change things up, so I flew to Austin and to Dallas and did a big barbecue tour. All I ate was brisket, but I got to talk to some really, really innovative pit masters. These were guys with a single store and they were there all the time. They were some of the coolest places. I took what I learned and started playing on our smoker next door with some of my own recipes to come up with the Bono’s signature recipe. I finally perfected the brisket and we launched it a couple of years ago.
If you ask what I eat every day, it could be a salad, some smoked chicken, or some turkey salad, but I’m always getting a little piece of beef on the side to get a taste of the brisket.
13. What’s the thing that you learned the most that you brought back to your brisket?
Brisket is a fickle character. Our beef bottom rounds only required 4 or 5 hours of cooking whereas a true brisket, Texas style, requires about 18 hours. It has a much higher fat content but that fat renders if cooked properly. It almost melts, permeating through the meat. It’s a much more difficult cut of meat to cook properly, but when it is cooked properly there is no substitute to any other kind of beef served in the barbecue business. There’s a reason brisket is king - because it’s absolutely delicious. It’s way more tender and flavorful and we’re able to give our customers exactly what they want. When people order in Texas they’ll order either lean or the fatty side, because there are different parts to the brisket. We can adapt to all of our different customer tastes in one piece of brisket. We’ve quadrupled our sales since adding the brisket and it’s now one of our most popular items. We cater the daylights out of it too. It’s been a great change.
14. What’s the difference between a Smoking Snack and a side on your menu?
Smoking Snacks are our appetizers and they include things such as our Hand Cut Onion Rings, Hand Cut Fried Squash, and Sweet Corn Nuggets which is our most popular snack. All our Smoking Snacks are served with our homemade Ranch Dressing. We make our Ranch Dressing fresh daily, with fresh ingredients such as buttermilk.
Our side items are the classics. Back in the day that meant Baked Beans, Cole Slaw and French Fries. Today we’ve got Green Beans, Sweet Potatoes, Mac and Cheese, Black Eyed Peas, and Brunswick Stew. That’s Bono’s adapting to what people want. The two most popular sides, and I think this is true of most barbecue places, are Baked Beans and Cole Slaw. French Fries are also popular but people are looking for healthier options so we’re seeing a shift from our classic French Fries to our Sweet Potatoes, which we bake, rather than deep fry. Our Sweet Potatoes are done straight up with no doctoring - we bake them in our ovens and serve them with Cinnamon Butter on the side. Mac and Cheese has also exploded as one of our most popular sides.
15. How do most people order your barbecue? Is it in sandwich form, or on a platter?
A sandwich comes on our signature barbecue bread, made here locally in Jacksonville. The simplicity of our menu, which is beautiful, is that we have the same barbecue meats and you can have them on bread as a sandwich, on a platter or on a salad. It comes down to what you want your vessel to be and that’s how we serve it to you.
16. What’s the most popular Stacker?
It’s probably the Slawpy Pig or the Bo-Hawg. These were all created a couple of years ago. Being in the restaurant a lot, I’d see plates coming back after being cleared and there was often cole slaw left over in people’s side orders. I started asking about that to find out if people didn’t like the cole slaw or if the server had to replace the side. It turned out that people loved the cole slaw but they just wanted some to put onto their pork sandwich, which is a very, very traditional and almost Carolina-esque way of eating a pork sandwich. That got me thinking that we should just make a sandwich that comes with cole slaw and then people can order another side to go with it. That led to the creation of the Slawpy Pig and now we sell the daylights out of those. The Bo-Hawg started when I was watching Diners, Drive-ins and Dives a few years ago. This lady was making a gigantic cheeseburger and she put a sausage link on top of it and I thought that was a great idea. It’s always a challenge when you’re bringing in a lot of new items and this let us create an exciting new sandwich with food we were already cooking, by just mixing things up a bit. We didn’t reinvent the wheel, we just added our Azar sausage to our Pulled Pork Sandwich with a slice of cheddar cheese. I tell you what, it’s really good!
17. Can you tell us about your arrangement with the Jaguars (see ad)?
Bono’s is now the official bar-b-q for the Jacksonville Jaguars. We’ll be serving at all the Jags games along with many other events at the stadium, including the preseason games, the Florida-Georgia game, concerts and other events.
We will be in six different locations in the stadium. We have two locations on the upper decks, one on the main concourse, both East and West clubs, and we will also be in the Bud Light Party Zone. The menu will vary based on the location because of the nature of how the kiosks are set up and what our capabilities are in each section. For the most part it will be the same menu everywhere. We will have the ability to tweak throughout the season but we are going to start off with our bread-and-butter: pulled pork sandwiches, smoked turkey sandwiches, and then depending on where you are in the stadium some of our sides like macaroni and cheese, maybe some house made chips – we'll have to see where it goes. We may introduce our BBQ Salad in the club sections where we have better refrigeration and can maintain the lettuce. When it gets cooler, into the fall and winter, we'll probably introduce our Brunswick Stew.
18. For your arrangement with the Jaguars will you have a pit at the stadium?
We will produce all of our food in our restaurants. Everything will be smoked in our restaurants, finished on the pit, and taken whole to the stadium. We are not pre-cutting anything. We will bring our pit bosses down to the stadium and on game day they will be cutting as orders come in so that we can maintain the integrity of our food.
19. Can you tell us about your food truck?
We don’t own the truck. It’s done through a franchise agreement with a gentleman by the name of Chance Gerisch. He came to us and wanted to have his own Bono’s but he had the idea of doing a food truck. We don’t have a mobile presence like that and Chance is an awesome guy. We trained him up and he made the investment in his food truck. He’s literally got a smoker right on board. Like our cutters he cuts everything to order. A lot of times on a food truck there’s a commissary where things are pre-prepared. With Chance he’s got a smoker on the truck. He pulls pork butts out and cuts them to order.
It’s a really unique way for us to get out there. With our partnership with the Jaguars we expect that we’ll have the food truck at some of the games. We have other partnerships as well, such as with the Zoo, and hopefully we’ll be able to leverage the food truck for those events.
20. Which states currently have a Bono's?
All the Bono’s stores are located in Florida or Colorado. We have a sister concept called Willie Jewells and there are locations in the Carolinas and Georgia.
21. How did the Bono's location in Denver come about?
The two brothers who opened the Denver store are actually from Jacksonville. They grew up on Bono’s and wanted to take the concept to Denver when they moved there. They’ve done very well. They’re great guys and it works really well. For most things they just follow our lead but because of regional taste preferences they have a much more aggressive beef order and demand for our Red Sauce, whereas they’re not so familiar with Okra or Brunswick Stew in Denver.
22. Was Denver a one-off opportunity that came to you or do you have growth plans beyond Jacksonville?
Growth plans are kind of a funny thing to us. You’ll never hear us say that we’ll open 20 stores next year or even 10 stores next year. We’re looking for good people. When we find a good person it may take us a year or even two years to open that store. Bono’s has grown slowly. We’re nuts for having 20 stores and doing it the way we do, but we’ve lasted this long because you’re only as good as the people you’re putting in the restaurants and we’re going to do everything it takes to make them successful. We’ll do things like nit-picking the daylights out of the location before we approve it and by making sure the franchisee is the right person with the right experience and wherewithal to run the business. Maybe we’ll open a store a year, maybe we’ll open zero next year. But I can tell you that whoever we do get, they’re going to get our full attention and every bit of our effort to ensure their success. As far as growth plans go, if someone came to me tomorrow, and they’re from Baton Rouge and they told me they’ve been in the restaurant business before and they love our brand and they can get financing for a store, then we’ll probably fly to Baton Rouge 10 times to make sure everything is as it’s supposed to be. We’ll meet with them countless times and we’ll train them up. In those circumstances I’d open a store in Baton Rouge tomorrow. But it always starts with the people, not our desire to open a location with anyone who has the money. We’re not that aggressive with our franchising efforts. For us it’s not about getting a franchise fee and a few years of royalties before the store closes. The franchise fee is negligible. We build our business on the royalty and that means putting people in business for a very, very long time.
23. Will you bring the Willie Jewells concept to Florida?
Yes, we’ll be opening a Willie Jewells in Yulee in the Fall . The concept is to be a fast casual version of Bono’s. We took all the best things about Bono’s and eliminated the headaches. The recipes and sauces are the same as Bono’s, although they’ve been relabeled. What we’ve really done is to create a fast casual Bono’s. You walk up, order, pay, and then get your own drink. We have a sauce bar where you can add your barbecue sauce. You sit down and we bring the food to you. It’s a much faster ticket time and it’s a little less expensive, especially since you’re not expected to tip. We can do a store in a little more than half the space of a typical Bono’s. That makes the cost of entry for a typical franchisee much less. It opens the doors to far more entrepreneurs because the buy-in is so much more affordable. The fast casual business has also been the growth vehicle over the past 5 years and is expected to remain so going forward.
24. Will we see a Willie Jewells in Jacksonville anytime soon?
No, we won’t. We made the conscious decision not to bring Willie Jewells in to compete with ourself. There’s a barbecue joint on every corner in Jacksonville these days and we didn’t think bringing a whole new chain of barbecue joints to Jacksonville was what anyone needed. We’re looking to open a number of Willie Jewells locations this year and we’ll see how it goes from there. We’re really picky. Our growth strategy is about finding the right people, not finding 30 people and hoping 20 of them stay open.
25. How did you end up at Bono’s and what’s your role there?
Joe Adeeb, who owns Bono’s, is my father in law. I married his youngest daughter. When I came to Jacksonville I was working in sports and entertainment and as an agent. Being an agent with 3 telephones and going to jail to bail people out and picking up their dry cleaning and seeing the bad underbelly of that industry - all more than working on really cool endorsement contracts - made me realize that life was not for me. I ended up practicing as a legal counsel for a company here in town for a few years before Joe approached me. He knew that I loved food, loved cooking, and thought I would love the restaurant business, so he asked me to come work with him at Bono's. That was 8 years ago. Now I’m responsible for the legal side of things as well as operations.
26. What do you like most about working at Bono’s?
I love walking into my office every day and not knowing where it’s going to take me. I can be reviewing contracts one minute and then going next door to help the fry cooks get the orders out in a pinch. I can be signing checks another minute or negotiating a million pound pork contract. I get to deal with the Jaguars, which is like the dream of a lifetime, and then I get to work with all these fantastic people. There’s no corporate ladder here. Right now I have blue jeans and flip flops on. My dog comes to work with me every day and sits under my desk. How bad can life be? The restaurant business can be very difficult - there’s 5 million moving parts. That’s the headache of it but it’s also the beauty of it because it’s interesting every day.
27. What do you think the one or two most surprising things are about Bono's that people may not know?
I think the biggest surprise is the food and the difference between what we buy and how we cook it versus what some other places are doing and what their cooking processes are. A lot of people don't know what the pit is, why it's important, and why the pit makes such a difference. I started the new tagline a few years ago "if you don't see a pit it ain't legit" and people started to ask "what do you mean?". I challenged them and said if they went somewhere else for barbecue and they claimed to have a pit in their name you should ask them to see the pit. If they’ve got one, that’s legit barbecue and they’re doing it the right way and you’re going to a good place. If not, you need to see where your food’s coming from. I would say, now more than any time in my lifetime, people are caring more about what they’re putting into their bodies - they’re starting to care a lot more about what they eat and how it makes them feel. People also care a lot about who they support. One thing Jacksonville is so phenomenal about is supporting local businesses. I may be supremely biased but I think the Bono's story is such a wonderful story of perseverance. It’s been run by the same civic minded family that’s been involved with the community for 30-40 years and it’s been in Jacksonville for 65 years. I think it's important for people to know that story. When people in Jacksonville learn about things they may not have known before I think the support for Bono's will go bananas.
28. What do you think is next for Bono’s?
The plan, presently, is to make sure the brand doesn't get old and we remain relevant. We have to constantly work to keep up with the times. If we need to re-brand a little bit here and there then it’s important to make the necessary tweaks. We are not the pig with the handkerchief smoking a cigar BBQ. We’re not the cheesy BBQ joint. I want to maintain our authenticity while introducing a salad that’s become the most popular thing on the menu or by introducing some dry rubs that make our products better. We want to be as innovative as we can be while being true to our roots and our people. I’m the steward of a 65 year old brand. It’s an honor to get to do what I do every day. But restaurants die out - people get tired of them. It’s my job to make sure they don’t get tired of Bono’s and they still feel the nostalgia of supporting this local company. Our growth vehicle going forward is Willie Jewells and branching that out, hopefully all through the Southeast, and who knows from there. At Bono’s we’re opening a new location on the Northside later this year. We’re having one of our best years we’ve ever had. We couldn’t be luckier or happier with where Bono’s is at, but Willie Jewells really is our growth vehicle going forward.
I think if you’d asked Lou Bono in 1949 if he ever thought he’d be the official BBQ of an NFL football team he’d probably keel over. It’s a dream come true for us too. It’s probably the most exciting thing on the plate for us right now.