John Riesebeck, owner of Smokin' J's BBQ, poses in front of his smokehouse in Gulfport.
John Riesebeck, owner of Smokin' J's BBQ, poses in front of his smokehouse in Gulfport. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

Introducing ‘The Helpers’: Meet the people lending a hand during dark days

Butcher John Riesebeck is embracing a family tradition amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Published Mar. 26, 2020|Updated May 15, 2020
Butcher John Riesebeck is embracing a family tradition amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Fred Rogers once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

This is the first in an occasional series.

Like his dad, John Riesebeck started as a butcher and became a restaurant owner. His childhood memories include the smell of meats in the display case and long days that began before sunup and lasted long after sundown.

He remembers taking a frozen pack from the trunk of his dad’s Ford Mustang hardtop, ringing a stranger’s doorbell and handing the food to a mother. He remembers her tears, her hug and his father’s simple words.

“I want to do this.”

Dad told him nobody can fix everything, but solving one problem might be what will keep a family going.

Riesebeck wants to make him proud. That’s why he drove a 26-foot U-Haul full of donated supplies, a smoker and loads of meat to the Florida panhandle after Hurricane Michael. That’s why he sometimes buys groceries for strangers at Walmart. That’s why he placed fold-out tables in the parking lot of his Gulfport restaurant, Smokin’ J’s BBQ, and gave away over 500 hot dog and hamburger lunches last weekend.

“My entire family is this way, it wasn’t just that I was the oddball. You take care of your neighbors, you take care of people in general.” he said. “You know, it would make the world a better place if everybody thought of somebody else.”

He has his own worries. The restaurant is now pick-up only, the food supply chain is getting tighter, and he could be ordered to close at any moment. But he said he will continue to hand out meals as long as he can still purchase enough meat.

A family of four pulled up, two kids in the back. They rolled down the window and asked, “Just two, please.”

Riesebeck gave them four and received a choked up, “Thank you.”

Without hesitation, he assured the mother.

“I want to do this.”

Do you know a Helper? Contact jpendygraft@tampabay.com.

• • •

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