For much of their lives, Fred Johnson lived in the shadow of older brother Buddy.
When the two operated BuddyFreddys 20 years ago, Buddy worked out front, glad-handing local politicians and other diners while Fred ran the kitchen.
While Buddy went to the state House for three terms and eventually became the Hillsborough County elections supervisor, Fred would ultimately focus on a new venture, Fred's Market, a buffet with fried catfish, collard greens, red velvet cake and other Southern classics.
And in 2009 when voters were ousting Buddy from his post as elections supervisor amid fraud allegations, Fred was expanding the buffet to other Florida cities.
"I've always been that way," he said. "I'm a hands-on kind of guy. Buddy was always the more social one."
Fourteen years later, Fred's Southern Kitchen — or Fred's Market, as the locals call it — is a Plant City icon with additional locations in Lakeland, Bartow and Winter Haven. Now it's poised to open in Riverview.
The move will represent the fifth Fred's restaurant — all of them owned outright by Johnson or with investors.
Given a choice, Johnson, 58, two years Buddy's junior, says he'd gladly avoid the spotlight that shone on his brother through both the good and bad times.
He says he always felt more at home talking fried chicken and collard green recipes than politics, even though the topic comes up most mornings at his restaurant at 1401 W Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. — the unofficial gathering spot for much of Plant City's political establishment.
"Issues of the day, national politics, state politics, we cover it all," said city Commissioner Dan Raulerson, a Fred's regular.
It always seemed that way for Johnson, he said. Even before he was teenager he focused on work — busing tables and pushing a broom at his parents' barbecue restaurant while Buddy was studying and making a name as a standout basketball player.
Along the way, he said, he learned how to cook fried chicken, catfish, barbecue pork and collard greens — family staples that became the cornerstone of his future restaurants.
"They also taught me the value of a good work ethic," he said, referring to Elton, now deceased, and Evelyn, 84.
Mom still shows up most days at the Plant City eatery to greet patrons by their first names.
Their tutelage — as well as that of aunts Pearlie and Evie — is why Johnson is where he is today, he said.
The Riverview location will look identical to the original Fred's Market, he said.
A buffet steam table will sit on one side, piled with fried catfish, chicken, country-fried steak, greens, grits, and stewed okra and tomatoes. On the other will be a cold table featuring red velvet cake, coconut cream pie, various kinds of fruit and a self-serve frozen yogurt machine.
The restaurant is expected to open in August at U.S. 301 and Duncan Road, the site of the former Tammy's Lounge, which closed a year ago. Son Michael will run it.
Another son, Owen, owns Johnson Barbecue, next door to the original Fred's Market.
If the Riverview location is anything like Fred Johnson's other restaurants, it should be profitable almost right away.
"There's nothing else like it in the area," he said.
It has been like that for most of his business ventures. The first was in 1980, when Fred and Buddy invested $20,000 in BuddyFreddys on Thonotosassa Road in Plant City. Fred would focus on the kitchen, Buddy on the customers and marketing. The collaboration worked well.
But by the late 1990s, with Buddy spending more time in Tallahassee and at his district office, the partnership frayed.
"It was a communication problem more than anything else," Johnson said. "It got to where it wasn't fun anymore."
In 1997, Fred sold his stake in the business to Buddy. A year later, he opened Fred's Market at what then was a truck stop diner called Lori's. Johnson cleaned up the restaurant, banned cigarette smoking, and undertook a $300,000 renovation and expansion two years later.
Of course, he brought along the family recipes. The idea, he said, "was to open a place that I'd like to go to."
The formula worked, and within a few years Fred's was carving out a reputation as the go-to spot in Plant City for politicians, grandparents, moms, teachers, police.
Newt Gingrich stopped by when stumping for votes late last year. Gov. Rick Scott made the rounds as a candidate a year before that, Johnson said.
There's a circular table at the center of the dining room where many of Plant City's well connected meet for breakfast. The powwows usually start at 7:30 and last an hour.
"There's something about Fred's," said Randy Larson, a former Plant City mayor and a partner in the Bartow and Lakeland restaurants. "It's just a great place, and it's happened everywhere he's gone. Even in the BuddyFreddy days, Fred was the one really running things."
"It's a place everybody knows," said Raulerson, who's also an accountant. "It's just a comfortable place. You feel like you can go there and relax. There are no pretensions.
"Put it this way. Whenever I give someone directions to my office, I always start with, 'Do you know where Fred's Market is?' It's that kind of place. Everybody goes there."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.