Photos of the charred barbecue restaurant are tough to look at. The walls inside Smokey John's Bar-B-Que were streaked in gray, as if the ceiling had cried black tears.
It's tougher to ask the two brothers to retell the story -- one of "hurt, anger and despair," Brent Reaves says. This was Brent and his brother Juan's family business, in operation for 41 years and now theirs after they purchased the barbecue joint in 2013 from their dad, John "Smokey" Reaves.
When Brent arrived at the restaurant on Mockingbird Lane, near Dallas Love Field Airport, on Sept. 9, 2017, it was filled with black smoke, he recalls. He and Juan would soon learn that the grease fire in the kitchen -- which wasn't wholly covered by insurance -- would require the restaurant be gutted, if they even wanted to save it. A Dallas Fire Department spokesman says 34 firefighters and two fire investigators were on site.
"Painful" is the word Brent, now 40, uses to describe that day. "Absolutely painful."
The damage was bad enough that the brothers considered starting over, someplace else. It would've been easier. "There was a time when we really thought we weren't coming back," Juan, 47, says.
"But we're big believers in God and what he does," Brent says, even after they shelled out more than $250,000 for the remodel. "Things all happen for a reason."
After almost a year without a restaurant, the Reaves brothers will reopen in that same old shopping center near the airport, where the only evidence of a fire now is way up in the rafters, on a few pieces of black singed metal.
Deep Dallas history
In addition to operating Smokey John's for more than four decades, the Reaves family runs four Smokey John's booths and two Ruth's Tamales booths at the State Fair of Texas. John joined the fair in 1979 and was one of the earliest black vendors.
When the fire took place last fall, the family was weeks away from their busiest time of the year -- those 24 days when thousands of Dallasites go to work under the small shadow of Big Tex.
No way would the Reaves brothers pull away from their fair duties. The State Fair has become a significant part of the Reaves' business, bringing in about 30 percent of the company's revenue each year, Brent says. Maybe this stat is more impressive: They sold more than 30,000 smoked turkey legs last year.
Brent and Juan credit their dad with inching them toward the family business. It started early.
"Can you give me some quarters?" Brent recalls asking his dad John when he was 6 years old, wanting to play Pac-Man in the summertime. John offered another option: Fill up customers' iced tea and water cups at the restaurant, and they might leave spare change or a dollar on the table. "That's yours," John would tell Brent of the small tips.
"So I started pouring tea and ice water for Pac-Man money," Brent says, "and that's how I got started."
Juan got started working at Smokey John's because he wanted to go see The Jacksons live in 1981. His dad knew one of the promoters for the concert at Dallas' Reunion Arena and told his staff that everyone who worked at the restaurant could have a free ticket. At the age of 10, Juan got to work that summer, clearing tables and washing dishes -- desperate to prove he was an employee.
"That was really something," Juan says of his very first concert.
Food and fellowship
Unlike some of the newer barbecue restaurants in Texas, the ones that frown upon putting sauce on meat and pride themselves on writeups in national food magazines, Smokey John's was always more downhome. Its menu includes brisket, ribs, chicken and hot links as well as non-barbecue dishes like cheeseburgers and catfish.
Though the company once swelled to five restaurants in Texas, Smokey John's at 1820 W. Mockingbird Lane was the only remaining one when it burned. It was the site of Bible studies, family reunions and even a wedding.
Marty Cohen is matter-of-fact when he explains why his second wedding ceremony took place in the side room at the barbecue restaurant: His first wife, Carol Cohen, "insisted I find another godly woman to finish out my days with" eight days before she died of cancer, Marty says. At the time, Marty had been going to Tuesday Bible study at Smokey John's, sharing his point of view as a Messianic Jew. Anyone was welcome.
Marty soon fell in love with a woman named DeVora Clark, and keeping Carol's wish, he asked for her hand in marriage. Considering how important Smokey John's had been in his life and his faith, Marty asked John to officiate their January 2017 wedding.
"She'd never been to Smokey's before," Marty says simply. "So that's where we got married."
Rebuilding a legacy
After the fire in 2017, and after another run at a very hot State Fair of Texas, you could wonder if the Reaves brothers wanted a break from cooking. Nope.
They wanted to continue growing their catering business, both because they didn't have a working restaurant and because they don't seem like they sit down much. Brent had recently finished a small-business program through the Dallas County Community College District where he learned to create a five-year plan for the company. "It was probably the most life-changing experience I ever had," Brent says. A year later, after the fire, members of the program's Bill J. Priest Institute offered up their kitchen, located in the Cedars, for free.
A friend from Sammy's BBQ in Dallas offered an extra smoker, too. And Mark Hajdu, owner of a bar and restaurant called Lakewood's 1st & 10, let them cook out of his kitchen.
"We were on pace for a record-breaking year," Brent says, a little frustrated. "When all of these people came around, we were actually able to keep cooking."
The new restaurant will be about 1,000 square foot larger than the original and will have added perks like a small tasting room created specifically for catering customers. It will still have a private dining room on the side -- where Bible study was -- that will hold about 50 people.
The Reaveses seem energized by the project and have hatched a plan to open as many as four more Smokey John's restaurants in the next five years. The second location is "almost secured," Juan says.
They're even able to say that the fire wasn't as devastating as it first seemed, that day when Brent felt hurt, anger and despair.
"We've learned a whole lot of things through this process," he says, "and we've been able to create a better foundation for the company."
Smokey John's is expected to reopen in late September -- yes, near the opening date of the State Fair of Texas -- at 1820 W. Mockingbird Lane in Dallas.