Established in 1949, Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q has been a Jacksonville staple for 65 years. You can still dine at the original location founded by Lou Bono on Beach Boulevard. Bono’s has stayed true to its roots, and it’s easy to see why: you don’t mess with success. From that one original restaurant, Bono’s has grown into a family of over 20 restaurants in Florida and Colorado. At Bono’s, they pride themselves on cooking meat the traditional way: in specially designed pits over wood and watched carefully by a pit boss. Every Bono’s restaurant has a pit boss, carefully monitoring the pit.
Reggie Campbell has been a pit boss at Bono’s for almost 30 years. His typical day at the San Pablo restaurant starts at 8 in the morning, when he gets the fire started with Blackjack oak wood.
“I come in the morning and prepare myself for the day: light the pit up, throw some logs on, get it hot,” he said, adding it’s important to monitor the pit at all times. “I keep an eye on it where it won’t burn down the house. Turn it, move it. The heat has no control. I control the heat with the water hose. You got to always maintain and stay on top of it, because if you don’t, we won’t have a store the next day.”
Campbell estimates he typically cooks 500 pounds of meat or more every day. The San Pablo Bono’s also supplies meat for a satellite store in the Allstate building. Even though his job requires him to stay constantly vigilant, Campbell remains upbeat and is always willing to chat and kid around with the customers.
Josh Martino, COO of Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q, describes Campbell as “a legend.” Martino says the job of pit boss has an extremely difficult skill set, but very little turn over. He describes the pit boss as “probably the most important person in the house because they’re managing the pit, and the pit is what legitimizes our barbecue.”
Bono’s tagline is: “If you don’t see a pit, it ain’t legit.”
“If you look up the most famous barbecue restaurants in America, you’re going to find some really great places, and they have a couple things in common: most of the time there’s only one of them, and the other thing is they have a real live pit,” said Martino, adding being a pit boss is not an easy job. “You’re putting meat over a live fire that can fluctuate from 200 degrees to 600 degrees in a matter of minutes, so they’re maintaining the fire the entire time and they’re cutting everything to order. Every single ticket that comes through, they cut to order and that is just the most old-fashioned way to prepare someone’s meal.”
One of the things that has changed at Bono’s is the variety of sauces on the table.
“Originally, way back in the day, Bono’s had one sauce. It was a mustard-based sauce, which is the exact same recipe we use for that sauce today, and you could be allowed to keep it in a whiskey bottle,” said Martino. “We filled whiskey bottles, and we’d keep it up on the pit so it would be piping hot. Basically, everything that used to go out at a Bono’s restaurant back in the day, they would pour some piping-hot original barbecue sauce over top of it.”
Due to health department regulations, the sauce isn’t kept in whiskey bottles over the pit anymore, but now a variety of sauces are available on the table.
In honor of the 65th anniversary, there are some exciting things happening for Bono’s this year. As of March 1, they are the official barbecue of the Jacksonville Jaguars. There will be a variety of vending areas at EverBank Field serving authentic pit barbecue to hungry football fans.
“When Lou Bono’s invented Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q in 1949, he probably never imagined it would be the official barbecue of an NFL football team,” Martino said.