TAMPA — For more than four decades, barbecue enthusiasts have filled the tables on the wide porch under the moss-draped oaks at Kojak’s to down ribs, coleslaw and Mama’s Chocolate Cake, chased by cold beer and sweet tea.
This week came the news that fans won’t want to hear: The family-owned Kojak’s House of Ribs in that familiar 1920s bungalow on Gandy Boulevard between Bayshore and Dale Mabry Highway plans to close its doors to make way for new townhomes.
“Moving on,” owner Chris Forney told the Tampa Bay Times Wednesday. Kojak’s will stay open at least through July, he said.
Forney, one of 12 children of original owner Bud Forney, said he’s looking for a new location in a smaller, more easy-to-maintain space that will do more take-out — maybe South Tampa, maybe east of the city in the Brandon suburbs.
“I didn’t sell the business, just the dirt,” he said.
The restaurant’s quirky name came from the 1970s TV series about a savvy, shaven-headed detective named Kojak — which is what they called Bill “JW” Forney, who was a chief of detectives in Oklahoma before he went into the barbecue business.
Bill Forney opened his barbecue place in Midwest City, Okla., across from Tinker Air Force Base. His brother Bud opened his own rib joint on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa in 1978, using Bill’s special spare rib recipe — “thus Kojak’s House Of Ribs,” the restaurant’s website says.
Since then, legions of locals have eaten Kojak’s pulled pork, barbecue chicken, beef brisket and smoked hot sausage. Forney says they go through nearly 80,000 pounds of ribs a year.
“It’s the best,” said former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who orders the ribs, coleslaw, baked beans and potatoes. “I know we always talk about the new latest and greatest, but this is one of the oldest and best.”
Forney still has the original skeleton key to the converted house that’s nearly a century old. He’s hoping the antique windows can be saved.
Does he have any heartburn about deciding to sell?
“Are you kidding me? Yes,” he said. “Sleepless nights, you name it.” His customers go back three generations, he said.
“I’ve seen them born and have their own kids,” he said.
Kojak’s regulars stayed loyal during uncertain pandemic times, ordering lots of take-out and “tipping huge,” Forney said. He never had to lay anyone off.
“We’ve got a thousand customers I love,” Forney said. “That, I’m going to miss the most.”