Old and gray, there is nothing seemingly special about the shabby little shack tucked off Campbellton Road.
It’s only furnishings are throwaway church benches and two bleached-brown tables. It’s décor: celebrity pictures plastered on walls and a lightly stacked magazine rack in one corner on the restaurant’s marred black concrete floor.
On Monday and Tuesday afternoons, hardly any traffic clutters the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, which stands beside a gas station and a string of other small businesses.
But that changed on Wednesday when this grey shack with seemingly little to offer opens its doors, bringing in a steady flow of traffic from in and around Georgia and even neighboring states.
These patrons come seeking JJ’s Rib Shack’s coveted barbecue ribs and uniquely cut rib tips with a special Barbecue sauce; many wait hours in winding long lines for their slab of pork.
For almost 30 years, JJ’s Rib Shack, 2729 Campbellton Rd., has breathed life into the southwest Atlanta community, and its owners are all too aware of the small power their little restaurant yields.
“We bring a little extra traffic to the neighborhood,” Alex Jackson said.
One customer, who for the past eight years had her husband camp out at JJ's for rib tips for her birthday party, said she will continue to deal with the long lines.
Her reason is simple.
“There are some places that have such a good commodity, that all of the other stuff has to be put aside," she said. "Be assured, you go to JJ's for the food and nothing else. There is no atmosphere (except a few interesting characters walking by), there is no service, there are looooonnnng wait times. But the rib tips are worth it.”
On Wednesday Leeta Shawn only had to wait about 10 minutes for her order. A loyal customer since college, the 34-year-old has encountered the restaurant’s long lines many times.
“Usually on weekends when it’s really busy, I have to wait like an hour or so,” Shaw said. “I don’t like it. I wait though.”
Her desire to wait is a true testament to the treasured ribs the Shack provides. Shawn has been to other restaurants and tried their ribs. They simply didn’t measure up.
“This is better,” Shawn said. “The meat is more tender. It falls off the bone.”
A Tasty Beginning
Twelve-year-old Alex Jackson stood behind the counter taking orders and handing out change. Sometimes he would cook the meat and prepare the orders at the behest of his mother and owner of JJ’s Rib Shack.
The boy seemed to have been raised in the restaurant, spending his time after school helping his mother in the business even as he learned everything he needed to know about cooking by watching her.
The restaurant’s name, his mother’s initials, were written in black, branded on yellow and hoisted on the front when the small eatery opened 27 years ago. Julia Jackson always loved to cook and often shared her dishes with the children in her northwest Atlanta neighborhood.
She was a cook in a nearby club in southwest Atlanta before the single mother of two decided to open her own restaurant.
Now the 68-year-old rarely visited the restaurant and her daughter, who also worked in the restaurant, died last year. Alex Jackson, 38, now runs the business, taking everything he learned from his mom and parlaying it into his own brand of service.
“I’ve made slight changes in the ingredients and I might have upgraded slightly, but everything is basically the same,” Jackson said. “I’m trying to preserve the past.”
But the highly sought after barbecue sauce his Jackson’s own creation and he plans to begin selling it online.
For Jackson running the restaurant has become a routine. After so many years, his concerns have dwindled down to two: how much meat to put on the grill and staying in shape to push out all the orders.
Then, “I get into the zone and knock out all the orders.”
Jackson arrives at the restaurant about 8 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday to prepare for his customers. He prepares everything from scratch, seasoning the meat and putting as much as 360 pounds of ribs on several grills.
The meat would take two to three hours to prepare and Jackson would make sure to cut some of the ribs with a band saw to produce the tips his customers coveted. He also prepared barbecue chicken and side dishes of macaroni cheese and vegetables.
Most customers stick to what the restaurant does best: rib tips.
“They love it. I guess because when they get it, it’s hot off the grill.”
The Long Wait
Jackson admits the wait time can get long, growing from five minutes to an hour and five minutes, depending on the day. On weekends and holidays, he said customers often wait two to three hours.
Mike Jackson, Alex Jackson’s nephew, is often left to deal with irate customers waiting in lines that breach the 1100-square foot restaurant and continue just outside the restaurant’s glass doors and along the sidewalk.
The 21-year-old has been working at the restaurant since he was 12 years old and has enjoyed seeing various celebrities, entertainers and movie stars come through the doors. The list included a veritable who is who in politics, entertainment and business such as the famed Civil Rights Leader and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, Hank Aaron, Isaac Hayes and home builder John Wieland.
It’s unclear if any of them had to suffer the long wait in line.
“A lot of folks can’t get into the door when it’s busy,” Mike Jackson said. “Some folks go grocery shopping and others go to movies.”
For those who choose to wait and fuss, Jackson had one simple approach.
“Certain people I just ignore.”
Despite the often long wait, Alex Jackson seemed unwilling to share his grills with his assistant chef.
“I’m the main chef. I prepare everyone’s dish,” Jackson said. “He’ll step in and cook on the grill.”
But it was unclear what his assistant chef does and when exactly was it that he stepped in.
Still, Jackson seemed in tune to his customer’s desire and has an uncanny memory of all the dishes he prepares; a gift that readily comes to the surface whenever someone calls to dispute an order. But Jackson never argues. He is only too willing to make sure his customer is satisfied.
Jackson is not worried about competition.
“I think everybody is trying to build up barbecue places. They need to go another 20 years, then they will be a competition.”
His customers agree that he has little cause for concern.
Michelle Johnson, 55, has been going to the restaurant for more than 20 years.
For her the pull is the amount she gets for her money and the sweet, tangy flavor of the barbecue sauce pored over tender ribs. She has tried other restaurants, but haven’t found this combo.
“I like this one better,” Johnson said. “They give you good quantity for your money. This one just stands out.”
Jackson knows his pull. Unlike other restaurants, he doesn’t precook his ribs and freeze them.
“I keep everything fresh. Everyone knows I’m back there cooking it and I aim to please.”
And he always gives back to the community that has served his family-owned business so well.
“Kids in the neighborhood know they can just come up here and get something to eat,” Jackson said.
Toni English was at work in a Midtown salon when someone offered her some rib tips. The woman boasted they were good, but English was skeptical.
Originally from Detroit, English had tasted ribs from three or four restaurants in the four years she has been in Georgia.
Dissatisfied with the taste, she stopped looking.
Then she tasted the proffered rib tips last week. Days later, the 48-year-old woman walked into JJ’s Rib Shack to order enough ribs for two.
“I haven’t found any good rib tips down here in the south,” English said. “When I tasted those, it was like home.
“They were really good so I came way out here to get some.”
Lane Bostick from Austin, TX was also a new customer. In town on business, Bostick had an hunkering for rib tips. He searched on line and found JJ’s Rib Shack.
Still, many of the restaurants customers have been popping up at the restaurant for years. For some, it’s part of their weekly and biweekly excursion.
South Carolina Truck driver Wayne Gibson sat down on one the benches to wait for his order of a rib tips dinner. He was becoming a regular.
The 53-year-old had found out about the restaurant from a co-worker who took him there one day when they had finished work early on one of their trips to Georgia.
This was his sixth visit and he always ordered the same thing – a rib tip dinner.
“It last me two days,” Gibson said. “You can’t get enough for that price anywhere else. If you can, I haven’t found it.”
And Gibson, who expects his order to serve as supper for two nights, always gets extra sauce.