Food & Drink

Owners Look to Rebuild After Fire Guts Historic Arkansas Barbecue Joint

Fans of Jones Bar-B-Q Diner pitch in to save the century-old beacon of Southern barbecue and one of the country’s oldest Black-owned businesses

photo: Steve Higginbothom

Owner and pitmaster James Harold Jones stands in front of his fire-damaged restaurant.

Since around 1910, Jones Bar-B-Q Diner has been a mainstay in the small Delta town of Marianna, Arkansas. Still run by the same family who founded it, the barbecue icon received an America’s Classic award from the James Beard Foundation in 2012. But on the morning of Sunday, February 28, a fire broke out in the pit, devastating roughly seventy percent of the building before responders could put it out.  

“Jones Bar-B-Q Diner is one of the oldest barbecue joints in the country, one of the oldest Black-run barbecue joints, and one of America’s oldest Black-run businesses, period,” says the culinary historian Adrian Miller, author of the forthcoming book Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue. “Black entrepreneurs have always faced obstacles in this country, often hurdles intentionally put in place, so to have a business endure this long is significant.”

photo: Courtesy of Jones Bar-B-Q
Jones Bar-B-Q Diner before the fire.

Now operated and owned by fourth-generation pitmaster James Harold Jones, known to locals as Mr. Harold, the restaurant has been making classic vinegar-slathered chopped pork barbecue for more than a century. The Jones Bar-B-Q Facebook page lays it out plainly: “Hours are 7 AM until the food runs out. There is NO MENU. All Jones BBQ Diner serves is a pork BBQ sandwich on Wonder Bread.”

For barbecue fans and scholars, the restaurant also stands as a living example of Southern barbecue’s larger history. “The first time I went there in 2019, it felt like I was back in Clarendon or Williamsburg County, South Carolina, just from the smell of the air,” says Dr. Howard Conyers, a South Carolina-born, New Orleans-based NASA aerospace engineer, pitmaster, and food historian. “It’s the same way of cooking you find in the Pee Dee, and being there, it was so obvious that Southern barbecue traveled in the hands of enslaved people in this country.”

The news of the fire hit close to home for the revered South Carolina pitmaster Rodney Scott. His family’s Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway burned in 2013. “I remember the confusion of figuring out what to do and where to turn,” Scott says. “And I learned help can come from anywhere. We’ve got to take care of mom-and-pops because they’re the ones who made it possible for us. It’s important that this history stay alive.”

photo: Steve Higginbothom
The restaurant’s pit, where the fire originated.

Community members, patrons, fellow pitmasters, and barbecue lovers across the country are pitching in to help the Jones family rebuild. Two GoFundMe pages are now set up: one organized by the Jones family and a second created by the Little Rock-based nonprofit Arkansas Venture Center, with all proceeds going directly to the family.

“If people want to understand American barbecue, and especially Southern barbecue, this is the place,” Conyers says. “If Jones Bar-B-Q Diner doesn’t come back, you may not see this style of barbecue in that region again.”