TAMPA — The sweet smell of barbecue marked a point on 40th Street just north of Hillsborough Avenue for 40 years, wafting through the neighborhood, teasing neighbors. • People came on their lunch break from across the county to get their fix of ribs or chicken sizzled over an open-pit fire of oak and hickory wood — before Big John's Alabama Barbecue closed March 31. • Just days later, a bulldozer cleared the site to make way for the widening of 40th, one of East Tampa's main roads. • But that tantalizing aroma will lure people again. • "Just hang on. We'll be back in September, in a new building," Fred Stephens tells people constantly. • The family has been planning for a groundbreaking on the same site, but further back from the road. Stephens runs the restaurant with his sister, Beth Major. • Big John's, he says, is among the oldest operating businesses on the stretch of 40th Street from Hillsborough to Busch Boulevard. And, he says, "Ours is the oldest continuously family-owned barbecue in Tampa."
The demolition was part of a $100 million eight-year project started in 2003 that many say was long overdue.
Residents and business owners in the area claim the thoroughfare had been neglected by city officials. Many left starting in the '80s.
When finished in early 2011, according to current plans, 40th Street will be widened to four lanes from Fowler to Hillsborough avenues with a landscaped median, bike lane and sidewalks. The project is funded by the city, county, state and Busch Gardens, because their visitors typically travel the street from Interstate 4.
The city paid family members about $450,000 for the strip of land where the restaurant previously sat. The money enables them to build a new 2,200-square-foot restaurant on their remaining property, Stephens said.
In the meantime, Stephens and Major are enjoying a break from the work, but are eager to get into the new digs. They expect the bigger new building — as well as a few menu tweaks they've cooked up — will boost business.
Until then, neighbors are building up a barbecue appetite.
"I'm going through withdrawals," said 17-year-old Lanc Terry, who lives near the restaurant site. "About 4 o'clock, I'd start smelling that smoke. As soon as I get some money in my hand, I'd be there."
His regular weekend fix: ribs, beans, coleslaw, potato salad and a sweet potato.
"Yep," said the teen. "All of that."
The Rev. John Andrew Stephens, who stood 6 foot 3, opened Big John's in 1968. In the years to come, he and his 10 children served up Southern-style ribs, pulled pork and chicken with all the fixings.
He mixed the tangy sauce and refused to bottle it to keep the ingredients secret. His original establishment spawned three others operated by his children.
The Rev. Stephens had grown up on a large farm in Eufaula, Ala., where he dropped out of school after third grade to take care of his four younger siblings. It was also where he met his wife, Sallie. He moved his wife, mother and siblings to Tampa in 1958, and they settled in Central Park Village. He started First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens. Sallie and many family members still live near the church.
Stephens took in anybody who didn't have a place to stay or something to eat, said Major, who has been caring for her mother since the restaurant closed.
"We had to share him with everybody," she said. "He was a big man with a humble heart."
He opened the restaurant when he was 45. It had 10 tables that held a maximum of 35. Most of the restaurant's business came from carry-out orders.
The appeal was as much about the smiles and jokes as the open-fire cooking.
"We feed your spirit and your stomach as well," said Corey Miller, one of Stephens' grandsons who started cooking at the restaurant when he was 10.
Stephens died in 1994 at age 72 after a heart attack.
Miller, now 28, still cooks there. "I consider each customer a blessing," he said. He credits his grandfather for the goodwill. "We still live off some of the things he did."
Family members are tweaking the menu to add stuffed potatoes, French fries, iced tea, lemonade and a John Dog — a sausage with grilled onions and sauce.
But expect the same down-home Alabama barbecue.
"It worked for 41 years," Stephens said. "We don't want to mess with it too much."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at (813) 226-3431 or email@example.com.