Photography by Danny Fulgencio
Juan Reaves started working at his dad’s restaurant, Smokey John’s, bussing tables and filling water glasses, in the summer after fourth grade.

He earned enough money to buy a 10-speed bike, and he got to see The Jacksons at Reunion Arena when every employee was given two tickets to the concert. His dad, “Smokey” John Reaves, was a buddy of the band’s tour manager.

Juan’s younger brother, Brent, started keeping customers’ tea glasses filled about seven summers later because he wanted to earn quarters in tips for the tabletop Pac-Man.

The brothers, who grew up in Oak Cliff and graduated from Bishop Dunne Catholic School, started running the business in partnership with their dad in 2013.

They have taken it through the fire, literally. The restaurant near Love Field was closed for 16 months after a September 2017 blaze gutted the place.

They reopened in January 2019, and just eight months later, their father died at age 74.

John Reaves opened his original restaurant in 1977 and later became the second Black operatorat the State Fair of Texas. He opened Smokey John’s in the early ’80s with the help of businessman Pete Schenkel. Reaves later helped his friend and investor Ruth Hauntz open a booth, Ruth’s Tamales. Now there are two Ruth’s and four Smokey John’s at the fair.

A photo of John Reaves serving Ruth Hauntz at Smokey John’s in the 1970s.
The Reaves brothers’ first Big Tex Choice Award, for fried Jell-O in 2016.
A collage of customers and friends from the early days of Smokey John’s.

The same week they lost their dad, Juan and Brent Reaves won a Big Tex Choice Award for their Big Red Chicken Bread — a fried chicken wing wearing sunglasses sitting atop a red soda-flavored donut. Their creative team also won for Hauntz’s Stuffed Fried Mexi Cone, a barbacoa taco cone. Those were their first Big Tex awards since fried Jell-O in 2016.

The fire gave them an opportunity to crystallize their identity.

“We started going to barbecue places all over Texas to give us an idea of the style that we wanted and to define ourselves,” Brent says.

Smokey John’s does great barbecue, but they’re also good at country cooking and soul food. They knew they wanted to keep that part of the concept and found that Smokey John’s is its own thing. They began working on plans to franchise.

While those plans are on hold because of the pandemic, Juan and Brent Reaves are continuing their father’s legacy by taking the time to connect with people. They go live on Facebook at about 7:15 p.m. every weeknight, starting with “motivation Monday,” then “talk-to-us Tuesday” and the like. They started giving away prizes during trivia Wednesday, and they ham it up for hundreds of viewers over discussions of peach vs. blackberry cobbler and setting and achieving goals.

“It’s a modern way of continuing my dad’s legacy,” Juan says.

Their dad had a larger-than-life personality and had relationships with Dallas Cowboys players. His bygone restaurant on U.S. Highway 67 at Polk opened in partnership with Oak Cliff native and All-Pro Cowboys player Harvey Martin. The eatery was called Harvey Martin’s Smokey John’s, and should-be hall-of-famer Drew Pearson was an investor. The family is still close with the Cowboys’ founding family, the Murchisons.

Before their dad died, Juan and Brent Reaves had no idea how many close friendships he had. The elder Reaves had a habit of praying with people over any problem they had for seven days, and no fewer than 30 people called him their best friend.

Before his sons took it over, Reaves ran the restaurant with his wife, Gloria “Mama” Reaves, who died in 2010. His cousin, Douglas “Rent” Spradlin, was the Smokey John’s pitmaster for 30 years before his death in 2011.

Juan and Brent also have a sister, Yulisa Reaves Waters, who grew up working in the restaurant and is now a lawyer.

Juan Reaves has kids who are 14 and 9, and his son started working at Smokey John’s to pay for a high-end baseball bat.

“We’re finishing what dad started,” Juan says. “It’s exciting for us to take what he had and build on that. It’s all coming together for us now.”