Dean’s Barbecue in danger of closing after 68 years in Clayton

Not much has changed at Dean’s Barbecue in Jonesboro.

The low-slung shack nestled in gravel along South Main Street is pretty much the same as the day Jesse and Essie Dean opened on Dec. 30, 1947. So is the menu.

Except for the addition of chicken in recent years, Dean’s dabbles mostly in pork — from the Brunswick stew to the signature pulled-pork sandwiches topped with pickles and wrapped in wax paper, though the price of the sandwich, which once sold for 35 cents, has risen to around $4.50 these days.

Its no-frills approach has made Dean’s a Clayton fixture and earned the family business a spot in the Southern Foodways Alliance documentary on Georgia barbecue as well as accolades from various media.

Family members still babysit the rows of 25-pound hams 15 to 18 hours a day three days a week, turning them every so often to ensure the tenderness and signature smoke-infused taste that has drawn politicians, Hollywood stars, pro wrestlers and regular folks for decades. Actors Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields stopped in when they were shooting “Smokey and the Bandit.”

But a legal dispute among family members threatens to end the 68-year-old southside barbecue dynasty, believed by family members to be the second oldest family-owned barbecue joint left in the state. (Sprayberry’s, started in 1926 in Newnan, holds the top honor.)

Family members were hesistant to discuss specifics about the dispute. But interviews with a few of them indicate the squabble boils down to who is best-suited to run the business, which belongs to eight siblings, children from the late founder Jesse Dean’s two marriages.

In November, half-sister and sole executor Susan Barnes took older brother and patriarch Jimmy Dean, who manages the business, to court for failure to pay the $575 lease on time, the latest in an ongoing string of issues over the years. Under the lease agreement, the lease could be terminated if the business operators were late three times during the year. Barnes declined to comment on details saying it’s an ongoing court case.

Beyond the late payment, Jimmy Dean was recently cited for not having renewed the business license for a few years, something that has earned him a Feb. 18 court date. He bristled at the mention of it.

“It’s being renewed,” he said Wednesday. “That ain’t nobody’s business but mine.”

Meanwhile, attorneys for both sides are working to try to keep the business open, family members said.

“I want to maintain the business and ensure that it’s run more efficiently,” said Barnes, 59.

Jimmy Dean, who at six years old “toted the lumber” so his dad and grandfather could build the place, said he’s working toward a similar end

I’m trying to save it,” said Dean, 74.

After word got out online a couple of weeks ago that Dean’s might be closing, people have been coming from all parts of Georgia as well as North Carolina and Florida to get their fix. The business is blowing through the usual fifty hams it goes through in a typical week.

Amanda Griffith drove about an hour from Pike County recently to pick up two pounds of barbecue for her father and a couple of slices of homemade peanut butter cake for herself.

“I was devastated when I saw it on Facebook that they were closing. It’s going to be sad,” Griffith, 34, said. “I’ve been coming here since before I could walk.”

Clayton Commission Chairman Jeff Turner called Dean’s an integral part of Clayton.

“When you talk about the small mom-and-pop businesses that helped build Clayton County, you’d definitely have to add their name to the list,” said Turner who was a Dean’s regular during his days as a young Clayton County police officer.

The picnic-style dining area - the one main expansion made to the business over the years- is warmed by a 60-year-old heater. The tables are set with vinegar-based barbecue sauce in squeeze bottles and big rolls of paper towel.

If Dean’s closes, it will follow in the footsteps of other two other small barbecue joints in Jonesboro that have closed their doors in recent years, taking with them a lot of southside culture. Butch’s Chicken House closed its doors in the fall of last year. In 2012, Harold’s Barbecue shuttered after 65 years in business.

“I’m a small community business owner so you hate to see them leave,” said Brown, 62, a partner in Georgia Pool Supply in Stockbridge who stopped in last week.

The family’s legal fuss isn’t the only reason Dean’s is on shaky ground these days.

“The regulars are dying and young people who grew up on it are moving away,” Jimmy Dean surmised.

But for those who’ve remain loyal, eating at Dean’s is a pilgrimage.

Sandra and Randy Kirkland come every Tuesday and Saturday from Conyers. Sandra Kirkland pitches in, helping to sweep up and clean tables after she has her barbecue fix. The Dean’s are like family to her.

“We’ve kind of adopted them,” Kirkland said. “This is a tradition. It’s simple. No-frills.”