The South Bronx has seen a lot of demographic and economic change over the years, but at least one thing has remained constant for generations: Johnson’s BBQ in the Morrisania neighborhood has been serving up ribs and sides like collard greens and black-eyed peas since 1954.
Johnson’s longevity is no small feat. Many businesses fail to survive for a decade or two, let alone 69 years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than a fifth of businesses open today in New York State are 30 or older. One factor to Johnson’s success is that the family owns the building, sparing it from potentially crushing rent hikes, but its strong relationship with the neighborhood is a key part of its survival.
The takeout and catering eatery is located on a typical New York City block, surrounded by a handful of other stores, including a beauty salon, deli and Chinese restaurant.
But what separates Johnson’s from the other establishments on East 163rd Street are its deep community ties, its place in the city’s Black history and the long line of hungry customers that often snakes outside its door.
“You come on a Sunday, you would swear that there is an entertainer performing here,” said Duval Simmons, 57, who has lived in the neighborhood most of his life. He said the Johnson family is known for giving back to the community and their reputation for good soul food consistently draws a crowd.
“Sometimes this place be so crowded you have lines, but people wait … cause they know once they get home and they eat this, they know they money was well spent,” he said.
While many establishments in New York City are making bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches or buttering rolls at 9 in the morning, Johnson’s BBQ already has slabs of ribs in the rotisserie; huge pots of rice, collard greens and yams on the stove; and a heaping tray of macaroni and cheese in the oven – all in anticipation of the day’s rush.
Johnson’s BBQ was established by the late James Johnson and his wife, Pauline. James hailed from South Carolina. Their son, Dwayne, who now runs the restaurant with the help of his daughter, Stacia, said his father moved to the Bronx in his early 20s with a “fourth grade education” in search of a better life.
Mark Naison, a professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University and founder of the Bronx African American History Project, said stories like this are common. He said by the 1950s, Black Americans from the South were bypassing New York City neighborhoods that earlier generations flocked to and instead settled directly in the South Bronx.
“Black communities emerged in the Bronx almost as a suburb of Harlem,” Naison said.
He said the South Bronx served “as a place of hope and opportunity, as a place where children got better educations, where great music could be performed and where great churches opened up.”
Providing a taste of home to a growing population
By the late 1950s, large parts of Morrisania had become majority Black, and Naison said establishments like Johnson’s provided a taste of home for Black Southerners who journeyed north.
Dwayne Johnson said his mother, a native of Virginia, came from a family of cooks and it was her idea to open a restaurant. He said his father came up with some money and bought the building Johnson’s BBQ calls home in 1953.
At one point, he said Johnson’s had two other South Bronx locations – one on Prospect Avenue and another on Morris Avenue.
“The one on Morris Avenue was really the moneymaker because you had Yankee Stadium five blocks away and you had the welfare center, all that was in that area,” Johnson said.
He said the city eventually bought the Morris Avenue restaurant from his father to make room for court facilities, while the Prospect Avenue location, which his dad was renting, was taken over to put up affordable homes.
Johnson, now 65, took ownership of the remaining location in 1986. But, he said his work in the restaurant began when he was in third grade, “peeling potatoes, wiping things down.” His only real time away from the business in his lifetime was when he attended Lee College in Texas and later spent a year or so working for IBM.
He has decades of memories that revolve around the restaurant, and called his family’s business a “neighborhood story.” He vividly recalled a checkers club that played outside the restaurant when he was growing up. In the wintertime, he said, they would play in a back room, and stick around past closing time.
“My father would lock the door and leave and leave them a key, they’d be still back there playing checkers, their wives would come here to get them,” he said.
Johnson also proudly listed the famous rappers who’ve stopped in for a meal over the years – “Fat Joe, Lord Finesse and Heavy D,” to name a few.
Johnson remembers several neighboring Black-owned businesses when he was growing up, but to his knowledge, his restaurant is the only one left on the block. Naison said there is no question that the definition of Black-owned has shifted in Morrisania over the years. He said instead of establishments owned by Black people from the South, you are more likely to find West Indian and West African-owned establishments in the neighborhood.
According to census data, Morrisania is now majority Hispanic, though its share of Black residents has increased over the past decade. But Naison said a common theme has emerged from his work with the Bronx African American History Project.
“Many of my friends who I met through this project who were teachers, social workers, people who worked for the government and had good pensions, who were originally from the South, have moved back to the South,” Naison said.
It’s something Naison described as a “big retirement migration” to places where life is simpler and costs are lower.
A recent Gothamist analysis found that New York City's Black population declined by nearly 200,000 people in the last 20 years, and according to demographers, the vast majority of those who left the city are African American.
Preserving a legacy with an eye toward the future
Johnson’s 29-year-old daughter Stacia, who stepped in to help with the business full-time during the pandemic, said it means a lot to be a constant in a city of perpetual flux.
“I look at it as a gift from God,” Stacia said. “I don't have children yet, so I just feel like this is my baby to nurture for now.”
Stacia has worked to grow Johnson’s by adding catering to the eatery's repertoire, expanding its menu, increasing its social media presence and bottling its famed mustard sauce for online sales.
While preparing food in the hot kitchen, Johnson affectionately referred to Stacia as “the boss.”
“I love the boss,” he said.
Both Johnson and his daughter said growing the business is not about the money, but rather preserving the family legacy and the strong relationship they have with the community. As Johnson put it – “money is a tool to help people.” He remembers his dad paying the college tuition of kids whose own fathers died or were incarcerated.
The Johnson family continues to give back in a variety of ways, including providing food for an annual community celebration called “Old Timers Day.” The event typically draws thousands of people for music, dancing and eating. Stacia pridefully showed off Instagram photos showing a long line of smiling faces waiting to take a heaping portion of their barbecue and sides.
Tonia Williamson, who has lived in Morrisania for more than 30 years, said Johnson’s BBQ brings back fond memories of her youth.
“When I was in high school, we would cut through the projects and we come over here, we get some ribs or we get some chicken … laughing and talking and having a good time,” she said.
She said she’s come to know Johnson’s as a place that is there for the community no matter what.
“I remember a couple of kids in the area, you know, the mothers talking, ‘oh, I gotta get my child a haircut for school.’ And I saw [Johnson] go in his pocket, ‘go get your child a haircut’ … you don't have to do that. He works hard for money, but he's a community guy,” Williamson said.
While the Johnsons are known for spreading love, they also feel it in return, as people in the neighborhood frequently pop their heads in the door just to say hello. “I get love all day,” Johnson said. “It makes me feel good, man. Man, you don’t know, man.”