Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q
If you step through the door of any one of Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q restaurants, you’ll be greeted by the cook or wait staff who know you by name, all while you take in the scent of meat smoking on a wood-burning pit in the middle of the dining room. Soon that meat will be slathered in smoky barbecue sauce for you to enjoy.
“There are no secrets here,” President Josh Martino says. “Everything is out there for our customers to see, harkening back to exhibition cooking at its finest. We have an honesty and integrity to what we do. It’s old fashioned and requires a higher degree of difficulty for most cooking procedures; it’s paramount to what we’re about. Plus, we don’t cut anything until you order it.”
Bono’s has been serving barbecue since 1949 with 20 locations throughout Florida and one in Denver, staying true to Southern barbecue traditions. The company’s motto is “if you don’t see a pit, it ain’t legit,” and Martino believes that this style of cooking is why Bono’s has lasted so long. But it also makes having more than 20 restaurants live up to the same standards a difficult animal to tame. “The truly great barbecue joints in America have two things in common: one, is that they have a pit; two, is that there’s only one of them,” Martino says. “We’re the only crazy people who have 20 of them!”
Martino started out his career as an attorney, but he eventually grew interested in the restaurant business, wanting to find something he could be truly passionate about. His father-in-law owns Bono’s and offered Martino a chance to be a part of it in 2006. He jumped on the opportunity and never looked back. And he says he’s never been happier.
Happiness, passion and pride in Bono’s is true at all levels of the company. More than twenty-five of its employees have worked there for more than 25 years, and many others for more than 10 years. Bono’s has found that long-term employees inspire long-term customers. They get to know each other, recognize people as soon as they walk into the restaurant and even know their favorite menu item. “Our pit bosses have eyes in the back of their heads,” Martino says. “Sometimes they don’t even look at the door. They already know what that person wants, they know their dog’s name, wife’s name, they know what to ask about in their life. It’s someone getting to know you personally and serve you a hot meal.
“You can walk into the greatest steak restaurant and, if it’s inhospitable, it doesn’t matter how good the steak is, people won’t go back,” he relates. “It really is about the experience. It’s hard to duplicate. People that appreciate it, they stay with us a long time.”
After receiving many offers for franchising opportunities a few years ago, Bono’s considered a new concept to target even more customers: a fast-casual version of Bono’s. Many people want the quality of Southern pit barbecue without the time it takes for a sit-down restaurant experience. The company opened its first fast-casual version of Bono’s called Willie Jewell’s Old School Bar-B-Q in Charleston, S.C., in 2009.
At its busiest, it only takes six people to run the place and costs between $350,000-$550,000 to open it, rather than the $1.8 million it would cost to open a full version of Bono’s. Although 2009 wasn’t the greatest time to be opening any new business in the United States, Bono’s franchisees were able to sustain both it and Bono’s traditions. “We didn’t look at it as a startup,” Martino explains. “Once we established that the Willie Jewell’s brand could stand on its own, the question stopped coming up about why we didn’t name it Bono’s Express or Baby Bono’s. But we were very intentional about that.”
The name Willie Jewell’s is an homage to a woman who came to work for the Adeeb Family decades ago. She became part of the Bono’s family and a second mother to Bono’s CEO Joe Adeeb. Martino says she became one of the finest cooks in Jacksonville, Fla., and had a larger-than-life personality. She passed away when the company was coming up with the fast-casual dining concept and Martino and Adeeb decided to dedicate it to her, especially since she had created so many of the company’s recipes.
The Willie Jewell’s concept has opened many doors for people who want to franchise a smaller version of Bono’s. There is now one Willie Jewell’s in South Carolina, two in Florida and one in Kingsland, Ga., with another opening in Augusta this year. “When someone comes to you and wants to invest their life savings into something you’ve created, we take that seriously and it’s an honor,” Martino says. “We won’t sacrifice authenticity and it’s something we’re planning on growing nationally.”
Bono’s was able to get the word out about Willie Jewell’s thanks to its loyal customer base. Additionally, the company launched social media campaigns to bring in the newer generation of barbecue enthusiasts and millennials concerned about where their food is sourced. “People tell me they’re Bono’s for life now,” Martino says. “People really want to know where their food is coming from, how it’s prepared, what’s in it. We love to answer those questions. We work really hard on our sourcing.”
Martino hopes that Willie Jewell’s will lead Bono’s into the future and put both brands on the map across the United States. “I’m excited to go into business with new people and, with them, succeed with something we created,” he says. “All in all, this is a family business, and that seems to really resonate inside our stores with our staff. I wouldn’t trade the people I work with for anyone. They’re the ones responsible for this brand lasting as long as it has and we are eternally grateful.”