he fires weren’t burning in the industrial-sized smoker, but the mouthwatering smell of shagbark hickory smoke and cooked pork hung heavy in the air.
For the past four years, brother Keith and Nate Johnson have used their smoker and food truck to travel throughout central Indiana serving barbecue at fairs, festivals and community events. Soon, that scent of wood smoke and rib tips, brisket, pork shoulder and other meats will be a weekend staple of downtown Bargersville.
Johnson’s BBQ Shack is set to open in the next month in the small Johnson County town. The eatery will serve as the home base of the Johnson brothers’ barbecue food truck.
The hope is that it will further establish the Johnsons as the go-to spot for Texas-style barbecue, as well as serve as another draw enticing people to the revitalized downtown Bargersville.
“We’re hoping that this becomes a come-to spot, where people from all over Indianapolis know that the best barbecue is down here,” Keith Johnson said.
Work was nearing the end at the shack, as contractors installed the wood trim, drywall and lighting in the new restaurant space. Old wooden church pews needed to be painted black and installed along the walls as seating, and decorative sheet metal would go up on the walls to give an industrial look.
No food was cooking yet in the kitchen. But the Johnsons have a vision of people huddled over a rack of ribs or a pulled-pork sandwich very soon.
The Johnsons’ approach to barbecue is bare-bones, with no fancy ingredients masking their own handcrafted rubs and the natural flavor of the meat. Using hardwood such as hickory and apple, and eight hours or more of cooking time, they produce the perfect slab of food.
“You have to keep it simple,” Keith Johnson said. “Our rubs are simple. We have about six or seven sauces to accent the meat, but the biggest thing is going low and going for a long time.”
They want the same ethos to apply to the business itself. Over the past 10 months, the Johnsons have transformed a vacant building along the Southern Indiana Railway into a barbecue shack.
“This is a unique property down here, and we’d like to keep everything in line with the look that they have down here,” Keith Johnson said.
The Johnsons founded their barbecue business in 2012. But their foray into smoked meats started much earlier, when they would smoke whole turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner. They started using a Coleman electric smoker, putting the bird on just after midnight and staying up all night to make sure it cooked properly.
“We have huge Thanksgivings, with 75 to 80 people, so it was a hobby for us,” Keith Johnson said. “Then after a couple years, people wanted us to cook it for them.”
Until this point, they operated out of a food truck.
The barbecue business has served as a side job for both brothers. Nate Johnson teaches special education for Indianapolis Public Schools, while Keith Johnson is a deputy sheriff in Marion County.
They started going out on weekends with a small smoker and serving at local events such as the Johnson County fair, Taste of Indy and Greenwood Freedom Festival. This past fall, a second truck was added to handle the increased business.
The success of the mobile business and growth in catering requests led Nate and Keith Johnson to investigate a central location to work out of.
“We were looking for a commissary for the trucks, and this building was available. It was a good fit for us,” Keith Johnson said. “We didn’t want to go into a strip center. We both grew up in the Center Grove area and wanted to keep it close.”
The hope is to have the restaurant open by late January. The food will be Texas-style barbecue, with limited sandwiches on the menu as well as per-pound servings for carryout.
“We’ll have a big 7-foot-long wooden cutting table. When people order it, we’ll take it right off the warmer and cut it right there,” Keith Johnson said. “It’s going to be about as fresh as barbecue as you can.”
As a locally owned restaurant, the Johnsons have tried to take advantage of other area businesses to partner with. Their soda is all provided by Handcrafted Beverages, an Indianapolis company that makes old-fashioned drinks using cane sugar or stevia.
The eatery also will sell desserts made by the Indy craft-creamery Lick.
The shack will seat up to 44 inside, with more able to sit on the patio and on picnic tables out front, Nate Johnson said.
While the eatery won’t have its own kitchen when it first opens, plans are in place to expand the existing building by 25 feet in the spring. That space will hold an A.N. Bewley wood-fired commercial barbecue pit, which Keith Johnson is picking up from Dallas.
“There are only two companies that really build true wood-burning pits, and you can’t buy them up here. So we’re going to Texas to get ours,” Keith Johnson said.
The Johnson brothers would like to add space, including more outdoor seating and a bar on the south end of the structure. In time, they envision a banquet facility available to rent where they can provide catering, Keith Johnson said.
By locating in downtown Bargersville, Johnson’s BBQ Shack can further the town’s attractiveness as a destination. Taxman Brewing Co., the craft brewery established across the street, creates an entertainment district at a time when community leaders are making improvements and hoping to development the downtown area.
With Taxman Brewing Co., the Johnsons think the two businesses together can help strengthen Bargersville as an attraction.
“We saw what Taxman did, and that was definitely some motivation in opening here,” Keith Johnson said. “When I look at our two businesses, there are a lot of comparisons.”
Block parties, concerts and movie nights are all ideas that Keith and Nate Johnson want to discuss with town officials.
“Obviously, Taxman being down here is a big draw. So we hope we can work together to bring people to town,” Nate Johnson said.
Johnson’s BBQ Shack
What: A Texas-style barbecue joint serving brisket, pulled pork, ribs and other smoked meats.
Where: 82 S. Baldwin St., Bargersville
Who: Owned by brothers Keith and Nate Johnson
Expected opening: Late January or early February
Sample menu: Pulled pork, pulled chicken, boneless pork chop, hot link, rib tips, turkey leg and brisket
Information: johnsonsbbqshack.com or Facebook.com/JohnsonsBbqShack