By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
He’s 24 and owns a condo. She’s 35 and an executive who is younger than most of her employees.
Meet the Jacksons. They’re not that famous musical family that came from Gary, Indiana instead Derek and Jheri Jackson are the second generation of operators who run Best Barbeque, a popular, family-owned business that has sold tons of mouth watering foods from a tiny building at 1648 West 115th Street in Beverly. Their dad is Michael Jackson and for years he turned the business into a real thriller among residents in this far South Side neighborhood.
Located just off I-57, it’s a 20-year-old business that has drawn thousands of food lovers from all over Chicago. For years, many have stood in long lines to tear into some tasty ribs smothered with a time-honored family recipe that continues to bring customers as far away as Iowa.
At the head of this operation is Jheri and her brother Derek. Both are the youngest of a family of four. Well-mannered and humble individuals, the two have carved out nice lifestyles after taking over the business from their 60-year-old father, Michael. As the founder of Best Barbeque, he recently retired and moved to Tampa, FL, where he now owns a Popeye’s Louisana Chicken Franchise.
Since leaving Chicago, his two children have run the takeout eatery, doing everything from taking orders from customers to managing Best Barbeque’s 20 employees, some of whom have been working at the place since it opened in 1996.
For Jheri and Derek, it’s an operation that has afforded them a piece of the American Dream while they’re young. Best Barbeque has also taught them about the value of hard work as they take on the challenge of maintaining the quality and reputation of their family-owned business. With high expectations and tough standards the two are rising up to the pressures of continuing a proud tradition their parents started two decades ago.
Their aunt, Shirley Williams, has been in the business for 40 years and built 10 barbeque rib joints. One is just minutes away on the other side of I-57.
It’s Friday morning at Best Barbeque. The eatery is about two hours away from opening for business. While some employees are firing up the grill to cook the day’s meat, Jheri and Derek and their father sat down with a Crusader reporter for an interview. The meeting is held at a round dinner table in the staff kitchen.
Derek is the quiet one, but he warms up about 20 minutes into the interview. Jheri is more loquacious. Articulate, she loves a good conversation.
Although it’s the start of another busy weekend, the summer season is considered the slowest part of the year. During this time, many cook their own barbeque with the children home from school. For Best Barbeque, the business gets a boost from the traffic next door, where a LA Fitness health club anchors a strip shopping center that was built five years ago. After it opened in 2011, business at Best Barbeque increased by 20 percent, Michael said.
Although retired, Michael from time to time coaches his children on how to manage the business. The biggest lesson his children is learning is how to master the art of customer services in particular situations. It’s an essential ingredient that he reminds his children to include in their operations.
“We get calls from him everyday. He would always ask, did you do this?,” Jheri said.
Those expectations include working long hours to keep the business in tip top shape. It’s a standard that can put a lot of pressure on two young business executives who are still growing personally and professionally.
“We try our best to live up to that expectation,” said Derek.
The demands and responsibilities of running a popular rib joint have forced Jheri and Derek to work 12 and 14-hour days. During very busy times, including holidays, they work seven days a week. They said the workload can sometimes be overwhelming, but the benefits they say makes it all worth it.
“We had an employee who quit the other week and we had to take over her shift,” Jheri said. She worked five days a week. So we were here around the clock.
“We want to make sure we have good customer service,” said Jheri. “We have to remain professional no matter how our customers are acting.”
Best Barbeque sells rib tips, turkey tips, hot links and barbeque chicken. Before the meat is grilled over chopped wood, it’s marinated and seasoned for two days with a secret family recipe.
“We just don’t throw it on the grill. It takes two days to prepare the meat. We do it the old school way,” Michael said. “We have people coming in from Iowa. We have quite a few white customers too.” Michael said.
The rib tips are still the hottest selling item, but the turkey tips are an unique item that’s becoming just as popular because they taste good and are healthier to eat. In fact, many customers say they are as good as the rib tips. Some customers often say they can’t tell the difference between the two.
Michael said patrons of the LA Fitness next door often stop by for the turkey tips. “They’re more health conscious, ” Derek said.
Another hot-selling item are the hot links. They are juicy and have a good kick. Michael said the business sells about 200 pounds of hot links a week.
Best Barbeque also serves up homemade peach cobbler, a dessert that’s constantly flying off the shelves.
“We go through 30 pans a week,” said Derek Jackson.
The weekends are the busiest times. Holidays are also big business, but New Year’s Eve is Best Barbeque’s biggest day for sales. Best Barbeque also does catering for private events. For several years it catered barbeque for the Chicago Defender during the annual Bud Billiken parade.
The Jacksons say their business remain popular among celebrities, including Chicago Bulls player Dwyane Wade, who stopped by several weeks prior to this interview in August.
When they were asked to take over Best barbeque when their dad retired, the two agreed with little hesitation.
“We just jumped right in. We had no second thoughts because we wanted to keep the family business going,” said Jheri, who used to worked for eight years as a social service employee for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services before she joined Best Barbeque full time.
Derek is originally from Tampa, FL. He taught karate before he joined the family business.
“At first, I was a little hesistant, but I learned to appreciate the business,” said Derek, who owns a condo in Lynwood, a quiet, middle class neighborhood that borders Indiana. “Not many kids my age have the opportunities that I have.”
Jheri likes the barbeque rib tips and chicken. A fitness buff, Derek prefers the barbeque chicken. Michael said Best Barbeque is a business that gives back to the community.
“I’m a big believer in recycling and giving back to the community and using other Black businesses. Our accountant is Black and our attorney is Black. Our supplies and everything we buy are from Black-owned companies. Our distributors and suppliers are Black-owned.”
Best Barbeque is strictly a takeout eatery. Food lovers just take their ribs and go. Next door is the Black Cat Lounge, a facility that Best Barbeque leases to a businessman. Michael said he would have expanded Best Barbeque, over the years, but never followed through with it. In April, Best Barbeque opened a second location at 79th and Loomis. That one is managed by Alderman Carrie Austin’s grandson. The Jackson family said they’re currently looking to open a sit down Seafood restaurant.
As part of the new generation, Jheri said she has started a digital website to attract more customers. She said her main focus is using social media to expand Best Barbeque’s customer base.
To family members, Derek is known as the Facebook king.
Jheri said being well-rounded is important in keeping Best Barbeque a quality institution.
“We strive to learn every aspect of our job,” Jheri said. “We’re not perfect. We’ve had some rough days. We have to be strong like our parents.
For their father, Michael, retiring from the business that he ran for two decades was bittersweet.
“I miss the employees,” he said. They’re like family. When you’ve been around someone for 50 to 60 hours a week, you grow attached to them. They’re a diamond in the rough.”
“We did a good job raising them,” Michael said. “What we instilled in them is that if you want nice things, you have to work for them.”