Flint, MI—Trying to get Curtis and Jessica Johnson to sit still is nearly impossible—the husband and wife team behind Smoking J’s BBQ & More are too busy running their new location in Dort Mall.

“It took a whole year for us to get open,” said Curtis from one of the restaurant’s laminate-topped tables, as if the idea of resting now that he can operate is unthinkable.

Almost as soon as he sat down, Curtis got back up and went into the kitchen, its yellow walls visible through a serving window behind the register.

“He’s reading the certificate,” said Jessica, shrugging with a smile at her husband’s now-empty chair. 

Customers dine in for lunch at Smoking J’s BBQ & More, a new family-owned restaurant in the Dort Mall on the south side of Flint, Mich. on April 22, 2022. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

It’s a Wednesday, so the restaurant is closed, but usually the sound of folks licking their BBQ-sauce-covered fingers and the scent of rib tips or fried chicken fills the room—a room that still looks and feels like the cozy coney island it previously housed.

Curtis’s voice could be heard before he could be seen again. 

“Our final inspection was February the first, 2022,” he said, walking back to the table. “And so that gave us our final okay to open.”

That means Smoking J’s has been open for about two months, though the Johnsons took over the lease on the space in December of 2020.

“The pandemic had nothing to do with us opening,” Curtis continued. “It was more the city.”

The pair talked about the difficulty of getting inspectors out and hanging on to the restaurant’s lease, insurance, and energy bill while waiting for a green light. They spoke without anger—though perhaps some lingering frustration. 

Rib tips and macaroni and cheese made by Smoking J’s BBQ & More on April 22, 2022. Smoking J’s opened earlier this year inside of the Dort Mall on the south side of Flint, Mich. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

“Eventually, my wife got tired and started making phone calls,” Curtis said. Jessica nodded as he listed people and offices she’d called, which he said included Flint City Council members and even the fire chief. “So (the inspectors) finally came out.”

Despite the pair’s unexpectedly long opening process, they are thrilled with their brick-and-mortar location after years of operating at outdoor locations—though Curtis’s smoker will still be seen outside Dort Mall’s main entrance on the restaurant’s open days.

“We started at Linden and Pasadena,” Curtis said. “Well, actually, we started on Dort Highway down the street.”

“In the parking lot,” Jessica added.

The couple, who have been together 35 years, laughed together, remembering.

“Yeah, in the parking lot of Ace Beauty,” Jessica repeated.

The Johnsons have not yet held a formal grand opening event, which they said will happen soon. In the meantime, they said, they are grateful for “the love” they’ve been shown so far.

Alexus Johnson, 23, with her father Curtis, 49, and mother Jessica, 49, at their new family owned business Smoking J’s BBQ & More on April 28, 2022. The restaurant is located inside the Dort Mall on the south side of Flint, Mich. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

“You know, there’s a lot of people that know us from our previous location,” Curtis said. “And there’s a lot of people that still don’t know that we’re open… but we constantly get new customers every day.”

When asked why they decided on opening in Dort Mall, the pair noted that they both had a history in the location (Jessica even went to the hair school that used to be downstairs), and they want to be part of its revival.

“There’s a lot of stuff right now going on in Dort Mall,” said Curtis, citing a boxing tournament earlier in April that had customers lined up outside Smoking J’s. “So, we’re just here to help try to build the mall back to what it used to be.”

Ribs cook up on the barbeque under Curtis Johnson’s close watch on April 28, 2022. Johnson opened his brick-and-mortar restaurant, Smoking J’s BBQ & More, inside the Dort Mall on the south side of Flint, Mich. earlier this year. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

To that end, the Johnsons have already started renovations on a former clothing store across the hall from their restaurant. They are turning it into a rentable event space, but, Curtis said, they also plan to host their own community events, such as a Thanksgiving dinner giveaway and culinary classes for Flint’s young people.

“I’m born and raised in Flint,” Curtis said, explaining why the pair is working to expand and give back when they’ve only just opened. “I know there’s opportunities here. A lot of people are quick to judge Flint and say, ‘There’s nothing here in Flint.’… But those that are doing the talking: what are you doing to make it better?”

Smoking J’s BBQ & More, located in Dort Mall, is currently open Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. 

The Johnsons said they will post updates on a grand opening event to the restaurant’s Facebook page and hope to have their accompanying event space open in time to host a Father’s Day celebration in June.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....