The hundreds of fans who gathered for the grand reopening of Big John's Alabama Barbecue had waited nearly a year for ribs, some chopped pork or just a taste of that famous sauce, so they didn't mind waiting a little bit longer.
Even in the rain.
While much of Tampa partied Saturday at the Gasparilla Pirate Fest, at least 200 folks huddled together at the brand new building that was 10 months — and, really, 42 years — in the making.
The original Big John's closed in late March after the city annexed the family-owned property as part of a $100 million project to widen 40th Street, a main east Tampa thoroughfare.
The approximately $450,000 that the city paid the family of the late John A. "Big John" Stephens was enough to build a new 2,200-square-foot restaurant, just a bit farther back from the road at 5707 N 40th St. The new facility has expansive indoor and outdoor eating areas, flat screen televisions and plenty of parking.
Those parking spaces, and the side streets surrounding Big John's, were filled with cars Saturday. Other customers just walked on over. They were ready and waiting at 2:30 p.m. for the ribbon cutting.
But first, a dedication.
People thought they were showing up for barbecue, but they ended up in what seemed like a church service. Which is no surprise: Big John was also the Rev. John Andrew Stephens, native of Eufaula, Ala., and founder of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens on W Palmetto Street.
"Thank you," intoned the Rev. C.T. Kirkland, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, as part of his opening prayer to God, "for the pork that is chopped up and cut up and well-seasoned."
A stream of speakers followed, including Callie Crawford, Big John's only living sibling. Janice Nunn-Nelson led the crowd in a gospel hymn and assistant manager Corey Miller, a grandson of Big John, promised "the same customer service you've had for 42 years." The family, he said, remains devoted to upholding Big John's legacy.
By 4 p.m. the crowd was wet and hungry, but smiling. Finally they were getting their barbecue.
"You never know what you'll miss till it's gone," said Demetrious Tolbert, enjoying a rib. "I never knew how much I loved Big John's barbecue until I didn't have it."
Opening day went smoothly but for one glitch. The enormous chimney failed to work properly, so the barbecuing had to be done outside, the drizzle from the sky mixing in with the sizzle on the grill.
Candy Lowe and Julia E. Jackson, sitting inside at a prime table, didn't notice.
Big John's customers for more than 30 years, all they knew was that their favorite barbecue was back, and "it tasted exactly the same," Lowe said, raving over the ribs, baked beans and potato salad dinner that she had just polished off.
Aside from the food, the new building gave the restaurant a surprisingly upscale feel, Lowe added, something she said the neighborhood sorely needed.
"In our neighborhood, we don't have nice establishments," said Lowe, 46, a local tea retailer and president of Tampa's Independent Black Chamber of Commerce. "It's nice to walk in here and see such a beautiful restaurant."
Jackson, 47, a resident of the neighborhood, agreed. Perhaps, she said, other restaurant owners will be inspired by Big John's loyal customer base.
"We've been waiting for a sit-down restaurant in our community," Jackson said. "It's long overdue.
"This," she added, looking around at the long lines and packed dining area, "is eye-opening."