Construction is mostly complete. Hiring has begun. The smoker is ready. Fairhope's iconic Ben's Jr. Bar-B-Q will soon reopen. After 35 years, the doors closed in 2018 due to the retirement of owners …
Construction is mostly complete.
Hiring has begun.
The smoker is ready.
Fairhope's iconic Ben's Jr. Bar-B-Q will soon reopen.
After 35 years, the doors closed in 2018 due to the retirement of owners Kenneth "Bubba" Lee and his wife, Rise. The community showed up for those final days to secure one last burger or barbecue pork sandwich and to bid farewell to a Fairhope institution.
At the time of the closure, it was said the restaurant would undergo a remodel and reopen in 2019, but that didn't happen. When will Ben's reopen has been a frequent question on social media and around the community.
According to Baldwin County property records, the property was purchased by Pace Keyser LLC in 2018, which is registered to William E. Fusaiotti, owner of the Foosackly's franchise.
On Jan. 31, 2020, a photo of a building permit was posted to the Ben's Bar-B-Q Facebook page. The comment section exploded with excited fans asking for a projected opening date. Construction began, stopped and began again.
Southwood Kitchen owner and executive chef Jeremiah Matthews joined the project three years ago. For Matthews, this is a full-circle moment.
"It's one of the first places I worked. I've got a long-standing history with Ben's and Bubba, the previous owner," Matthews said.
At first, Matthews felt his plate was too full to handle another project, but he also did not want to see someone from out of town come in and change things.
"He (Fusaiotti) was persistent enough and kept asking me about it. I don't know anyone else better doing it than me and him as well," Matthews said. "So here we are. That was about three years ago."
Ben's was one of the first kitchens Matthews worked in as a 17-year-old kid. He said there are quite a few local chefs and restaurant crew who passed through the kitchen at Ben's cutting their culinary teeth.
Ben's has quite the cult-like following, and when asked what he attributes that to, Matthews said the owners, Bubba and Rise.
"You know, they were just good people. They just kind of fostered that environment where we all grew up working there. I'm not really sure how it came to get the cult following," Matthews said. "I think, honestly, it being closed for the past five years has probably fanned those flames a little bit."
In the 1990s, Matthews said Fairhope didn't have a lot of restaurants, but Ben's was one of the staples. The crowd was an eclectic mix of police, construction workers, businessmen in suits and grandmas. He also said it was an anchor of the community.
The location is the same, the exterior is refreshed but the same, and the interior has been completely remodeled. The menu, according to Matthews, will be familiar.
"What we are trying to do is what they did," Matthews said. "I don't want to go in and change too many things and say this is going to be authentic Kansas City or authentic St. Louis. It is going to essentially be what Bubba did. It's going to be Ben's burgers and Ben's barbecue."
If you follow Southwood Kitchen on social media, you may have noticed some barbecue specials like the smoked brisket, fried mac and cheese sandwich with white and dark barbecue sauce on brioche or the smoked baby back rib burrito. Those delicious dishes are the result of recipe testing. A few of the Southwood Kitchen staff are transferring to Ben's and have been working on trying different methods and getting the timing down on a smoker Matthews has behind Southwood that is identical to the smoker installed at Ben's.
Ben's Jr. Bar-B-Q menu will feature brisket, pork butt, ribs, smoked wings, burgers and possibly smoked turkey. The fried seafood will not return to the menu. The proteins will be complemented with homemade sides like coleslaw, mac and cheese and braised greens. While the opening menu will feature the core items, Matthews feels it will expand over time.
"Once we get comfortable in our ways and get our systems set in place, we're going to look at charging things up and get a little more creative with it," Matthews said. "But in the beginning, we will stick with what we know and what's been tried and true there."
Ben's loyal fans may see a familiar face when the door finally opens. According to Matthews, the previous owner, Rise Lee, will return for a few weeks to help with the opening of the restaurant.
"She said she's bored. She's finally ready to come out of her shell and help us out," Matthews said. "I know people will love seeing her. She was a fixture there just as much as Bubba, if not more because everybody saw her."
Matthews is also hoping to get some of the old memorabilia back on the walls.
"You know, it's pictures of me, my old friends, my son when he was young. It was kind of cool to see those, and I'm trying to get those back in," Matthews said. "We're going to have mason jars full of sweet tea and plastic plates. We're trying to keep it as original as possible."
Ben's Jr. Bar-B-Q does not have an official opening date set just yet, but Matthews is hoping it will be the first part of December.
He wanted to host some soft openings, but he said that social media and the sheer anticipation of the opening has made that almost impossible. Just the presence of three construction crew vehicles in the parking lot results in 15 people stopping by to ask when the restaurant will be open.
It's a great problem to have.