After a couple of years in the making, Sam Jones BBQ is officially open for dine-in and to-go in downtown Raleigh. Jones is a third-generation pitmaster who spent his teenage years working at Skylight Inn, in Ayden, North Carolina — one of the country’s most iconic barbecue institutions, opened by Jones’ grandfather, Pete, in 1947. From country to city, Jones enters the scene of a city barbecue revolution amidst a pandemic.
The Raleigh location, which boasts an identical menu to its flagship in Greenville, North Carolina, worked out several kinks with a soft opening for to-go only in early February. Jones notes that permits were put in late 2018, with plans to open in late 2019. If on schedule, he notes, the restaurant would have taken a gut punch. “They say the Lord works in mysterious ways and he looked out for us,” says Jones, noting that one of his most important duties is taking care of his wife and children. “Fortunately, we didn’t have to lay anyone off last year.’
Many of the pitmaster’s industry friends across the country were left shutting down entire restaurant groups and beyond, trying to maneuver the new normal. “Local, independent restaurants always rise to the occasion,” he says, whether providing a gift card donation, sponsoring a little league team, or feeding people during a natural disaster — even while being affected themselves. “It’s the first door people knock on to ask for help,” instating how important it is to support local restaurants as we ride out this storm.
“Our sales dropped for 3-4 weeks [last year] and we had been talking about online ordering when they suspended in-house dining” notes Jones. “I always say, you don’t know what you’re going to do until your knuckles get white, so we launched online ordering.” To forego the battle with third-party delivery fees for online ordering and delivery, taking up to 30% of a restaurant’s profit, the team had their own online ordering app developed. “We actually finished 2020 with our best year we’d ever had — and I don’t say that with one ounce of arrogance,” Jones says.
Jones, in a humble way, discusses COVID-19’s silver linings. “We were very, very fortunate — we were able to streamline some stuff and I think COVID-19 allowed us to work out curbside service and online ordering,” he notes, that wasn’t a norm for Independent restaurants prior to the pandemic. “[Curbside service and takeout] is something that will now never go away,” Jones says. “Once you start something that’s convenient for guests it becomes an amenity.”
Michael Letchworth, Jones’ business partner, notes that the pandemic allowed the team to work through kinks over the past few weeks — the recipe for a smooth dine-in opening on February 16. “If the pandemic never happened, we would have never considered the option to just open for to-go only,” says Letchworth. “But knowing that to-go will be a big part of our business, we wanted to perfect it and make sure the staff is well trained.”
Two weeks prior to opening, Letchworth says word-of-mouth leaked that Sam Jones BBQ was taking orders. “We were taking orders but weren’t trying to advertise we were open and it blew up,” giving the team real-life simulation of operating new technology and dialing up to-go service and kitchen service.
“They’re expecting us to have a bar,” Jones tells Eater Carolinas, in regards to what he feels Raleigh expects of the new downtown location. “We serve Natural Light in Greenville,” he laughingly tells us. “Just because there are local beers doesn’t mean they’re good — but if there’s one that sells good, we sell It — If not, we don’t.” The bar menu includes several craft cocktails, including the Sam Jones Old Fashioned, with Evan Williams black label bourbon, plus a small but thoughtful beer and wine list.
Customers are attracted to Sam Jones BBQ for the perfectly smoked, chopped whole hog barbecue. Jones waxes on about another story in tandem with the PepsiCo and Frito-Lay merger in 1965, where the Frito-Lay CEO, made a statement, in Jones’ own words, to never mess around with the Frito as it made them who they were. “And that's what I say about our whole hogs,” Jones tells Eater Carolinas. Think about what brought you to the ballgame to begin with. “My family cooked whole hogs — they served barbecue, coleslaw, and cornbread for 60-some years. When you pulled up in that parking lot, it wasn’t about what you wanted, it was about the quantity. That’s what brought us to the game. If anything is going to be right, the hogs are going to be right every single time.”
Menu standouts are....the entire menu, as the team has perfected the streamlined menu over the last few years. “I don’t want to be that barbecue, chicken, seafood, cotton candy, and everything on the sign kind of restaurant,” Jones says. “The last thing you want is for someone to say, ‘you don’t want to order that because it sucks’ because it’s been done poorly.”
The whole hog is a given, but customers shouldn’t sleep on the smokehouse baked potato — it’s the size of a grown adult’s face, stuffed with bacon, cheese, sour cream, butter, scallions, choice of smoked meat, and house barbecue sauce. The catfish sandwich and catfish bites are made with Carolina Classics catfish, a farm-raised catfish business a mere two miles from Skylight Inn. The smokehouse sandwiches and 1947 burger are always more than satisfactory. The most fun way to experience Sam Jones BBQ is by way of a Jones Family Original BBQ Tray (barbecue pork, a piece of Skylight Inn-style cornbread, and a side) or choose the three meats (upgrade with spare ribs), two sides, and cornbread situation.
At the end of the day, Jones notes that success is not always measured in profit, noting that being kind goes far in owning a business. “Just because my name is on the window doesn’t mean I’m the cornerstone that will cause it to be a success or a failure — our team does a great job,” he adds.